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Friday, December 9, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 18


Sometimes even the smallest of victories is enough, just enough to anchor an otherwise runaway day.   And today I was a-running.   Or at least my mind was, so many decisions.  Linda and I scurried from room to room with Electrician John deciding the location and type of every light and outlet, oftentimes feeling chased by our self-imposed off-grid power constraint.    And at the same time (or perhaps it was another me?) I toured the rooms with Root River Hardwoods Marty and Tom the Builder precisely determining which walls would be wood(red elm) and which would be sheetrock (painted).  All the while---in addition to painfully cold feet---Linda and I felt the pressure of the clock.  She needed to leave early to visit the Natural Built Home Store in Minneapolis to select the color for our Marmoleum countertops, a laminate type material made of linseed and jute.   And just when we thought we couldn’t balance one more spinning plate on our stick, Electrician John brings up an item, which we’d complete overlooked, by asking what we’re using for internet.  I wonder if HBC, the local provider, heard my scream.   Ahhh!!!!   So now you understand why I felt so happy as I snapped a picture of Solar Curt turning on a light.  It could have been any light.  But this light is powered by our 16 Rolls S530 batteries.  The batteries, however, were not charged by our solar panels, or even our tractor-powered backup generator.  These batteries arrived pre-charged.  So all we did was ask the Outback Flexpower One invertor to draw some DC power out of the batteries, convert it to AC, and pipe it down to the light.  But compared to a making a decision---where nothing actually is made---making light, real light upon my basement walls, feels remarkably satisfying, like a warm water upon cold feet.


Okay, so I’m going to let you in on a little personal secret.   I worry even more than I let on.   My darned murderous mind!  Now, as the deepening December cold easily seeps through the roof and walls of our home---partially unbuttoned and largely un-insulated---my emerging worry is that, after we move in, our home will not relinquish the cold.  What troubles my mind is thermal mass.  While our home will (hopefully one day) be quite insulated (R-60 ceiling, R-40 walls, R-5 windows), its built upon a mountain of thermal mass.  13 truckloads of concrete, and supporting all that, 26 truckloads of sand.   I don’t know how much the (pictured) masonry heater weighs.  Yet I’ve seen Mike the Mason pacing the floor and contemplating how to install its limestone cap, weighing 500 pounds and its only 2 inches thick!.   Heavy things hang on to their heat.  Even my body, filled with perhaps 120 pounds of water (very high thermal mass), is capable of jumping out of a sauna, rolling in the snow, and still sweating.   So all our thermal mass should be great for keeping our home warm in winter (and cool in summer).  Problem is thermal mass works in reverse as well, like the front-yard snowman still lingering as the lawn around him greens.   And if snowman can snub his carrot at spring, what of 500,000 pounds of Minnesota-chilled concrete and sand?  Will my feet freeze upon the icy concrete floor like they did yesterday?   And my worrying mind doesn’t’ stop there.  He imagines pipes bursting within the frozen floor, requiring a jack-hammering demolition of the floor to repair it.    Then my mind delivers its final, nearly lethal stab:  the nag of alternative home betrayal.  All that thermal mass we poured in to keep us warm will serve the opposite this winter.  Though Tom the Builder assures me all will work out---once the house is buttoned, insulated and heated---I still manage to worry, as if the murderous part of mind were sand and concrete, its high-thought mass refusing to let go.  Fortunately, the better part of me knows a thaw always come, not only to the house but---like an old wool hat---to the frozen corners of my mind.   

Goodbye outside!  Tom the Builder’s boys just finished nailing on your last few pieces of trim.  You won’t see us for awhile, excepting as we come and go from your inside.   Don’t feel bad.  In fact, you should be proud.  Look at you!  Your achingly beautiful, Minnesota grown cedar siding.   Your eye-catching Serious 525 windows, both generating heat through passive solar and retaining it with R-5 efficiency.  Your steel roof, capable of matching the hue of sky and capturing rain for our water.  Your gutters, easily catching and transporting the rain to your 5400 gallon underground concrete cistern.  Your 3 solar hot water panels, ready to heat our water and our concrete floor.  Your 12 solar photovoltaic panels, ready to generate 3000KW of electricity when the sun shines.  And supporting it all, your concrete floors, walls and footings:  the mountainous thermal mass.   And beneath that, your 4” of insulation.  And beneath that, your 26 truckloads of firmly packed sand.   And through your sand run your pipes for carrying clean water in from your cistern and “used water” out to your septic.  Don’t forget your outside porches, all three:  west entry, east corridor, and south perch.  What could be more welcoming and land-connecting?    Even if I mention your buried electrical cables (from solar panels and tractor-powered generator) and your root cellar ventilation, I’m sure I’ve overlooked something.  And that’s just it, outside,:  you’ve accomplished so much already it’s time to relax and let inside catch up for two or three months.   Don’t worry.  We won’t forget you.  We know you need a garage door, a corridor door, and of course some limestone you can show off.  Perhaps together, we can work at waiting and revel, for a moment at least, in what we’ve already done. 

A day faced with decisions.  While Cris of Hiller’s Flooring did his best to help us choose floor colors for the kitchen to go with our Natural Built Home counter-tops, we actually made no decisions. We’d already decided, months ago, on Marmoleum, a laminate made from linseed oil, wood flour, pine rosin, jute fibers and finely ground limestone.  We loved its earthy constitution.  Yet had we known then what we know now, I wonder what decision we might have made.  Turns out our house is built all-too mightily upon fossil fuels.   The diesel I burn (7 gallons per day) to power the generator.  The coal burned to create all the steel and cement.  The insulation: under the floors, in the walls, atop the ceiling.   Yet today we felt so good about our insulation decision, regardless of all its fossil fuel, that Linda sent this text to Tom the Builder:  “we could be doing straw bales.”  For a long time, we considered insulating our walls with straw bales.  What could be more sustainable?   We eventually backed away because of the potential for mold.    But now, in the heat of build battle, we’ve learned at least two more reasons not to do straw bales.  First, we can’t imagine the stress of trying to figure out how to stuff straw bales into our walls.  And the second reason we learned today.  The chill in the house (26F) stiffens the wire, making it impossible for Electrician John to snake wire through the walls.  So he fired up his 170,000 btu kerosene heater.  Imagine a spark from that igniting the straw bales.  At least, we wouldn’t have to worry about a cold house.   If I’ve learned one thing about decision making, it’s this:  only after I make a decision will I learn what I needed to know to make that decision.   So maybe I can stop agonizing over decisions and just start laughing at my own ego and the wonderful absurdity of the mystery.


We’re off-grid!!!!  Completely.   100%.  I’m so freakin’ excited, I can barely type.  Electrician John and his team are wiring away, drilling and cutting, and blowing heat into the house and the solar panels are not only keeping up, they’re holding back.  “We could deliver more,” they’re saying.  “But you don’t need it, and the batteries are full, so why bother.”  I can’t describe how good it felt to turn off the tractor-powered generator and park it back in the shed.  Thank you, tractor and generator, for your 4 months of reliable service to House the Land Built.  You’ll still be needed.  But not today, because today, the coldest day yet this winter, the sun is shining.  Brilliantly.   Even now, as I look out the cabin window as the sun nears the horizon, I need not worry about running out.   When she goes down, the batteries will chug on, providing Electrician John all the power they need.  Then tomorrow, when (hopefully) the sun returns, she’ll put back what John took out of the batteries.  For two hours, Solar Curt, Electrician John and I pondered the pictured display--the Mate 3--part of the Outback Flexpower1 Invertor which will eventually hang in the “control center” by the kitchen, a place of honor it certainly deserves.  At the moment I snapped the picture, the Mate 3 was telling me the batteries are 100% charged, the solar panels are delivering 2.5kW, Electrician John and his team were using 0.3kW and the generator is providing no power.  When all the power tools were buzzing at once overhead, I shook my head in disbelief.  According to Mate 3, the 12 panels were generating more sun-driven power than the roaring, power-hungry tools were consuming.  There out the window is you, sun.  And now you are connected, directly, to the tools that are building my home.    I’ll never feel the same about you again.




  1. I find this journal very interesting. Such descriptions. Cool man.

  2. Thanks Van for your words of encouragement. I sometimes wonder if I should try to reach out to others who might find my journey useful or interesting, but I'm not sure how.

  3. As I'm at my 2nd Kaizen event in 2 weeks (yes, that's right), I read your entry and find myself saying..."Trust the process, trust the process". :-) Lynn

  4. I just read the "off the grid". Awesome. glad you let us in on your "secret". Too funny.

  5. Van, seems like you like living off grid with the flexpower 1. I just ordered the 1-6 (48v), and am excited to install it over the next few months. I hope it comes with the newer mate. Did you have to order your new mate (3) specially?.

    1. I meant, Michael, apologies. SP

    2. SP - Solar Connection, my solar installer, ordered everything for me so I'm not sure if he special ordered the Mate3. I do highly recommend it!

      Good luck with your Flexpower One!