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Wednesday, February 27, 2013


“Did you hear what Chip said when he got up this morning?” Linda asked, referring to our friend who had stayed the night.

“No!”  I said excitedly.  I could tell this was going to be good news.

“He had this dazed and amazed look on his drowsy face,” Linda smiled.  “And without asking, he told me why.  He couldn’t believe how warm it felt.  And the only heat was from the one fire we’d lit at 6:30 the night before.”

I sighed, almost not wanting to take it in.  I mean, the night before Chip had joined us in our nightly ritual:  wine before the masonry heater fire.  He could obviously see this was no ordinary wood burner, since the chimney is four feet over, rather than directly above, the fire box.  He’d nodded as I’d explained the advantages of its contraflow design, how potential pollutants get trapped in the vortex above the fire box and---like the catalytic converter in your car---reignite, pulsing 1700F heat into the surrounding 8 inches of concrete, which then stores that heat for a long, long time.  He gawked at the inferno which reduced the well-stacked cabin of wood to coals in less than an hour. 
But apparently my masonry heater explanation was no substitute for experiencing the morning warmth all throughout Home the Land Built.  And as he pressed the palm of his hand against the exterior, feeling the soothing heat of a fire lit 14 hours earlier, he believed. 

So there it is dear readers, you’ll just have to do like Chip and come on down to Home the Land Built.  Yes, reading is intriguing.  But seeing---or tasting or touching or smelling or hearing---truly is believing.  Our door is always open and, after all, our home is designed upon the “Right to Look” principle.
P.S.  If Chip’s testimony couldn't inspire me to finish splitting next winter’s wood, what could?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Right to Look

From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat.  No sooner had I thrilled at my surprising, and free!, doubling of battery capacity, than I lost it.  Well, OK, I didn’t lose all the increase from 2 days to 4.  But now, somehow, I only had 3 days. 

At 8PM Tuesday, I smelled something wrong.  The Mate3 displayed 99% battery capacity at 8PM, only 3 hours after the last drop of sunlight-produced electricity filled the batteries.   Now a 1% drop might not sound like much too you, but it made me nervous.   And when I descended the cellar stairs Wednesday morning and read 94%, I wanted to vomit.  It’s supposed to be 96%.  Still a recovering statistician, I understood the ramifications.  96% remaining equates to 4 days of electricity with no sunlight, while 94% equated to 3 days.   I’d lost a day of my newly gained capacity.  How? 

The answer lay only 2 lines down in the Mate3 display.  The house, according to the Mate3, was drawing 100 watts.    That’s not so bad, I thought, until I turned off all the basement lights.  Still 100 watts.  I know my house.  That should say 0 watts.   Something, somewhere is sucking too much power. 

I scurried out to the shed, wondering if I left the lights on as I sometimes do.  But upon opening the door, all was dark.   With rising anxiety I searched every room, inspected every light source, in Home the Land Built.   All off.  Now maybe I’m the only one who does this, but I started to imagine I smelled something acrid and smoky, like a sizzling wire.    When I actually started sniffing the entry wall, I suspected it was my agitated mind that was filling with smoke.   I had to back off for awhile.  As the saying goes, if you want to find something, stop looking for it. 

And so it went for me.  I was outside, stuffing hay into the bottom of buckets at the Humanure Hacienda,  when suddenly I slapped my head.  Of course!  I dashed around the house to the little garden shed, the one beneath the yoga loft porch and above the root cellar.  I opened the door, looked overhead and there it was.

A light bulb.  A single burning light bulb.  The only non-LED, incandescent bulb in the whole house, and I’d left it on Tuesday morning after I entered to get a spare bucket.  With a proud smile, I flipped off the light switch, hurried down into the cellar and saw just what I expected on the Mate3 display.  0 Watts!    We had 4 days of capacity again.  Like the lifting of a thousand butterflies, anxiety fluttered away from my chest.     And as I sprung lightly up the stairs and gazed out at the solar panels, the magnitude of what happened washed over me like waves upon a beach.

In-wave.   A 75 watt light bulb increased our power consumption 50%!  

Out-wave.  Back in Minneapolis I had no idea what my power consumption was, nor what percentage any light or appliance accounted for.  However much we used, it was far, far more than we use now.

In-wave.  I actually noticed a 75 watt increase in power! 

Out-wave.  In Minneapolis, I might have noticed a 750 watt increase in power.  Maybe, when my next electric bill came.  But since I didn’t know how much I normally used, how would I have noticed a change?

In-wave.  I was able to find and fix the source of the problem within 24 hours. 

Out-wave.  In Minneapolis, I never found or fixed a single issue related to power.

In-wave.   I succeeded because of one over-arching principle we asked Architect Paul to apply when designing our home:  transparency.  The performance of any system, or any change to a system, should be immediately obvious.           

Out-wave.  The Grid, from which we obtained everything in Minneapolis---electricity, water, food, education, health care---was all about not looking.   Not only was The Grid too big and complex to “see”, but I had signed-up for The Grid principle: “I don’t want to know”.    Ignorance washed my hands of a host of Grid crimes:  sweat shop cruelty, corn-poisoned cows, climate-altering burps. 

In-wave.   Off-grid, or better put, community-tied is all about transparency.  Isn’t that what a community is:  where everybody knows everybody, where I can see what’s going on, good or bad?   
Seven years ago, Linda championed our first step off The Grid, the food grid, after reading Michael Pollan’s prophetic words in the Omnivore’s Dilemma.   If there’s a new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one:  the right, I mean, to look. 

What surprised Linda was the difficulty in trying to “look”.  Eventually she walked away from the supermarket’s organic produce and found, ta-dah!, the Dietz’s, our Land neighbors, with whom she started a CSA, delivering boxes of their beautiful veggies to Minneapolis.  Now she could “look” at our food from seed to supper.  And looking, it turned out, felt engaging if not downright fun. 

And so it is with our electricity.  Yes the light bulb incident was frustrating, even anxiety producing at times, but it was real and right there in front of me.  Not some phantom photon floating in some far-off power farm.  I looked.  I reacted.  I solved.    No longer am I like the queen in the fantasy novel Bitterblue who in frustration exclaims, “How can I correct problems I don’t even know about?”

If I could offer any light-bulb-inspired wisdom to poor queen Bitterblue it would be this:  your inability to see the problem IS the problem.  Become community-tied.  Not only can you see the problem---and at least have a chance of doing something about it---but a community is a lot more fun than either going it alone or a big hairy Grid.

P.S. to my old continuous improvement colleagues (you know who you are!).  I’m sorry if I’ve presented such a “slim” view of what you try so hard to do every day.    And also for any confusing terminology.  If it helps, substitute visual management (or ability to detect normal from abnormal) for transparency.   Substitute ad-hoc system for The Grid.  Substitute principle-based cell-operating system for community-tied.   And thank you for teaching me so much!   You’re partly to blame for all this you know J

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Feelin' Rich

“We’re celebrating tonight!”  I texted Linda. 

“Great!”  she replied from Minneapolis.  “Why?”

“Because…” I hinted, “…we’re rich!!!”

She knew better than to pry.  She’d never get it out of me before I was ready.  Even when she opened the car door, and I hugged her, and led her inside, and showed her the two glasses of fine Pinot Noir, still she knew to wait, at least until fire time. 
“Did you get a big consulting gig?”  she asked as we clinked our glasses.  I smiled, shook my head no.  We were seated in our ceremonial fire chairs, the ones with the big butterflies.  There’s no better place to share what really matters than before a fire.  And now, all light came from the masonryheater blazing before us. 

“Did you get a big advance on your novel?”  Silliness.  Complete silliness.  That’s how happy she was.  I was.  The moment had come.

“It’s the batteries,” I said.  “We got our wish.”  She sat there, open mouthed, knowing what I meant but needing to hear me spell it out.  “You know how disappointed we are that the batteries only store enough juice to last two days without sun?”  She nodded, held her breath.  “You know how that ties us down.  How hard it is to leave the home for a winter weekend, fearful that the batteries will drain out?”  Though her blink, blink said go on, I struggled, barely believing it myself.    I spit it out. 

“We now have 4 days of battery storage and its all free.”


I wonder what it takes to move from hearing something to believing something.    One thing for sure is it needs a story.  A really, really good story told over and over.  So I told her how Solar Connection Curt called.  How he’d talked to an off-grid expert.  How he’d made a mistake when he initially programmed the battery monitor, the program that determines how much juice remains.  How he’d told the program that our batteries held 400 amp hours when the correct number should be 1000 amp hours.  How he encouraged me to reprogram the battery monitor.  How I pretty much dropped the phone, ran down the cellar, and made fumbled my way through the changes.  And then…then I waited.
The only way to know if it worked, if it really would make the expected difference, was to see how much juice drained out of the battery overnight.  A typical night drains 10%.  The Mate3’s battery monitor displayed 100% at sunset.  I could hardly sleep that night.   Not wanting to dash her hopes, I hadn’t told Linda a thing.  Up and out of bed by 5:30AM, I nervously descended into the cellar.  If it hadn’t worked, the Mate3 would read 90%, meaning we still only had 2 days worth of juice.  I blinked at the fuzzy display.  Does that say 96%?  Having forgotten my glasses, I blinked again.  96%.  Ninety-freakin’-six-percent!!!  We have 4 days of juice!!!

“We’re rich!!!” Linda said, firelight glowing on her face.  And we laughed as we took turns naming what this meant.

“Every day is waffle day!” Nothing sucks more juice than the 1000 watt waffle maker.

“Long hot showers!” The hot water is mostly solar but sucks 700 watts to pump it. 

“A winter week in Jamaica!”  We could get away.  Four days of juice should buy us nearly a week in practice, since we’ve never gone 4 days without the solar panels grabbing some sunlight.  Two days of the dreaded fog? Yes, but not four. 

“With a tiny wind turbine we could get rid of the backup generator.”  I’ve started the generator 4 times this winter, whenever they neared the potentially damaging 50% capacity level.    With wind, we’d be beyond rich.  We’d be as free as the trees.
A week later, the reality of our wealth is still sinking in.  Every morning we rush to check the Mate3.  Every morning we’re amazed.  Suddenly off-grid electric seems so easy.  Not too easy I hope.  Such a tragedy if I forever lost my slight anxiety, that Indian grass-like connection to sunlight, or the lack thereof.   But I don’t see that happening. 

Day follows night.  Light follows darkness.  Rising percents follow falling percents.  I’ve always been rich, rich with the abundance of light and life.  I just didn’t always feel it.   Going off-grid---or should I say becoming community-tied---merely opened my eyes.    

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


“Will you raise a garden?”

“A-h-h.  M-m-m.  U-h-h  h-u-h.”

“Pickles?  Canning?”

“O-w-w.  O-o-o.   N-n-n h-n-n.”

“How about animals?  Gonna’ raise chickens?”

“H-a-h.  H-o-h.  M-hm-hm-hm.”

And so it went yesterday as hygienist Rochelle stabbed between my bleeding gums.   Shame really that so many in the dental profession, like Rochelle, display the barber-knack for good questions.  Occasionally, as she exchanged one instrument of torture for another---and my desire to be heard became unbearable---I’d squeeze in a seven second reply. 

“My neighbors are organic vegetable farmers.  Why grow what they grow?” 

“The guy we get our milk from sells eggs and pork, all from well-treated animals.”

“We’re planting fruit trees and hazelnut bushes this spring.  We’ll share with our neighbors.”

Perhaps they get good at listening between the lines, because Rochelle totally got my encrypted message.  “Why do everything yourself when you can share the bounty?  I wish we could all grow less and share more.”

Four years ago we asked Architect Paul to design a house that does only two things.  1. Connect us to The Land.   2.  Welcome family and friends.  And our decision to go off-grid---contrary to the stereotypical self-reliant hermit---was all about that Welcoming Connection.   We have plenty of sun, root cellar space and land to grow and store everything we need.  But why when the community already provides?  We love sliding open the door to Lonnie and Sandy’s giant cooler, inhaling the earthy smell, then picking through the cloth-draped bins of potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes.  Not to mention the gossip session before and afterwards.  The same is true for my Monday milk run (and eggs and pork).  Except then I have the honor of intruding upon home school.  Of course the kids (and I!) hate that (wink, wink).    And when it came to designing a cover for my novel, I certainly could have hired a professional.  But the result---I’m talking the big, grand result of life---is already so much bigger for having “hired” my 14 year old nephew Thomas. 

Yet, wonderful as it is here, my mind can’t help but wander back to Minneapolis.  Back to 4140, where a walk around the block could take any hour, or the whole day if you stopped and talked to every one of our old neighbors.   And on any warm eve---after a hard day’s work---someone, somewhere had their patio chairs pulled out.  Ahh!  G&T.  Cheese and crackers.  We were indeed community-tied.

That’s it!  That’s what we are, or at least strive to be. 


I never really liked the term “off-grid”.  It says what we’re not, but not what we are.  Solar professionals use “grid-tied” to describe 99.9% of all solar applications, where the solar-generated electricity is fed back to the grid.  Conversely “off-grid” describes the remaining 0.1%, where electricity is not fed back to the grid.  I don’t mean to be harsh, but The Grid is not a community.  A community knows its members.  I’m not sure we deserve it either, but I’d like to strive for---perhaps earn one day---the title Community-Tied.

And so, today, I pledge to my community.  To cream gentian, asleep in the rooted deep.  To tree sparrow, bending low the Indian grass.  To Savanna the Wonder Dog, may her sweet spirit nose sniff forever.  To my dear neighbors on the hill, from young Gavin and Olivia to well…you know who you are?  To my family and friends.  To my darling Linda.  To each and every one of you---except of course the sun, who needs me much less than I need him---I pledge to encourage the tie.  The tie that binds.  The tie that shares.  The tie that laughs merely because we’re in each other’s company. 

Perhaps one day, as Gavin and Olivia reminisce, they will nod and laugh, “Say what you want about that old Mike, but you got to admit he was Community-Tied.”  Then I would indeed have lived (and loved) a good life.