Thursday, 3 September 2015

Celebration and reflections

September 1: Celebration of harvest food with some of the friends and family who helped along the way.

September 1. Lights (on the grid) on. Or are they?

When I woke up on September 1st I knew that my off-the-grid project was over. No more constraints. It felt liberating because the choices now are mine. I can choose to waste energy or not. I can use my newly-found tools and skills to enrich my life and contribute a bit to the effort to reduce climate change or I can go back to my old ways.

I remembered when I lived off-the-grid in the desert in Botswana, and hiked to remote villages in Nepal when I worked there for the Carter Center. It was always a treat to go to the city - Gaborone, Nepalgunj, Kathmandu - and enjoy all the luxuries that cities offered, especially the hot baths and variety of food. September 1st feels a bit like that. A bit of a treat at the end of a fast. I was always glad to go to the city but I was always glad to go back - back to the serenity and richness of experiences that I could only have away from mainstream city life.

Lying in bed, I turned on the solar-powered light and radio on my bedside table and opened the curtains wide, just as I have been doing these last two months. I poured myself an infused coffee, something I have come to enjoy for the rich flavour.

I didn't rush downstairs to turn the switches on on my electric panel. Other than cooking - or not cooking with seemingly endless clouds - life has been pretty comfortable but there were a few things that I was looking forward to: a hot bath; laundry; and a cooked meal.

I also look forward to being able to tap into the grid to charge my electronics - laptop, phone and ipad which is also now my radio - when I need to. I will continue to use the free power I'm getting from solar as much as I can, though, and I will turn off my appliances when I am not using them and unplug them if they are not charging.

Yesterday I had to quit working on the computer and on an important project because there was not enough charge. I will be glad to be able to relax while writing and not have to think of running out of juice.

Last night before I went to sleep I turned on the hot water (this is not cheating, as I turned off the fuses before I slept on June 30th). I put my oatmeal on to cook and ran the bath - you guessed it. I burned the oatmeal. Solar cooked foods never burns so it's perfect for someone like me who can get distracted.

The bath was lovely, the laundry was lovely - air dried as I don't have or want a drier - but I didn't rush to bring up the appliances. Some will come up, like my toaster, microwave and coffee grinder, but others can just stay in the basement for a while.  I don't think I'll have a radio in every room any more. I'll have my solar radio in the bedroom, a small stereo in my kitchen/living room and the ipad will do for anything else.

On September 1st I was glad to get back in my car. I had heavy things to haul and pick up. I know that on cold, rainy days, when I have a heavy load to carry, or when I have a long trip in the dark, I will probably be tempted to take my car but I hope that I will see that as a second choice and will keep using my bike and my legs as my primary transportation. I certainly don't want to get back into the habit of using my car because I'm in a rush. After a summer of biking I learned that any time savings are minimal and I feel a lot better after biking.

Coincidentally, after so many cloudy days, my little fridge ran out of power on September 1, just as my project ended. I had to rush to put everything in the big fridge, which was now on, and managed to save them, though frozen items will have to be eaten up quickly as they thawed. What timing! I could tell yesterday that I was running short of power because my electronics would not charge. That's a big constraint with solar power - a secondary power source is needed but there are off-the-grid options.

I will keep experimenting with my portable solar cooker, even in the winter.
I plan to keep the solar panel on my roof until November and then take it down for the winter. I'll haul it up again in the spring.

And I will continue to cook with my portable solar cooker. I will cook on sunny days, even through the winter, and will blog occasionally about that. I also have plans to take it to Sierra Leone and experiment with it with my dear friend Manty, a specialist in home economics, while I'm there. Stay tuned.




Home-made solar cooker works well but is less portable. It reaches 250
degrees F and more when the weather is sunny and hot.
I will probably not keep the solar oven that I made, though it works well, so if anyone in Revelstoke wants to try it out, let me know. It easily reaches 250 degrees F in the hours around mid-day in the summer. The weakness of this design is that it heavy and bulky and can't be shifted as easily as my portable one. The benefit of this one is that there is more space in the oven for baking.








Thank you friends and family.
For weeks I had been planning the dinner I would have on September 1st for some of the many friends and family members who contributed directly to the project. Some provided technical and physical help. Others invited me over for meals or dropped off food on cloudy days. I always applied my pot luck rule - I had to contribute something to the meal - but I sure appreciated their kindness. I had to limit my dinner to 14 people but there were so many more who went out of their way to help, advise or accommodate me.

I also want to acknowledge the many wonderful readers of this blog and those who came up to me on the street, asking questions or offering suggestions. (For those of you following the 'Where are my savings going?' post about fossil fuel divesting, I did meet with Chris from Edward Jones this week and will add that information to that post). Thanks also to the Sustainable Living Committee of the North Columbia Environmental Society which offered me opportunities to share my experiences during workshops on solar cooking and green homes.

What's next? I don't know. I'm going to continue experimenting and learning about electricity and energy. I may take on another challenge next summer but it will probably revolve around water. I will use this blog from time to time.

Thanks for sharing this journey with me.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Where are my savings going? Looking at fossil fuel divesting.

Hard to see that we are surrounded by mountains with all this smoke.


It's been a few weeks since I have posted anything. Shortly after my last post I drove down to Washington State to visit friends and do some research - my fourth and last trip of the summer. Even then - mid-August - smoke from forest and grass fires was heavy in the air.

On August 13th, when we were driving to Omak, smoke from a fresh fire rose like a huge mushroom cloud in the air. When I left on the 15th, I wasn't even sure that the roads north would be open.

When I arrived home to Revelstoke we had some refreshing rain followed by cooler weather and a few days of good sunshine. I was able to take advantage of those sunny days to bake a banana cake and a loaf of bread in my solar cooker. The cake recipe said to bake the batter for two hours but I took the cake out after 1 1/2 hours and felt it was overcooked. I think one hour of baking in the mid-day sun would have been perfect. The bread wasn't perfect because, as the sun moved, the cooker became shaded and the bread flopped. It's edible though. Next time I'll start baking around noon.
The bread wasn't perfect because I wasn't there to protect it
from the shade but I can see how it would work.

Part of the challenge of baking bread with only sunlight is heating water early enough in the day to permit the bread dough to rise twice for at least an hour each time. I discovered that my SunRocket solar kettle, which I had not used much up until now, was the perfect tool for heating water quickly. With only ten minutes in the morning sun, I had warm water that could be added to the yeast.

By Sunday and Monday the smoke from the forest fires drifted into the Revelstoke valley. The mountains, if they could be seen at all, were just a dim outline and I could feel the smoke in my lungs.

This intense fire season makes me think often of global warming and the reasons that I'm doing this project. It also highlights another limitation of solar energy. Like clouds, smoke obscures the sun, making cooking almost impossible and greatly reducing the energy output of the solar panel.

*  *  *

One of my concerns in recent years has been saving for my retirement. I have struggled with the idea of mutual funds because I know that my money would be supporting companies with practices that I have serious concerns about. Most mutual funds, even ethical funds, invest in energy - i.e. oil and natural gas - and mining. While I benefit from the products of these industries, I am also very aware of the damage that they can cause. 

I have been investing my retirement savings in ethical funds but with this project I would like to go one step further and invest in funds that have divested from fossil fuels. Is it possible to do this while working with the financial institutions available in Revelstoke? 

I went around to all the banks, the Credit Union and investment companies. I learned that the banks had access to ethical funds but they did not have mutual funds that had divested from fossil fuels. Richard, at the Royal Bank, was very helpful. He said that if I did the research on fossil fuel divested funds, most banks would be able to set me up with a broker who could facilitate the purchase of that fund but that is the most they can do.

I also visited Investor's Group, which has its own socially responsible fund but no fund that has divested from fossil fuels. They offered to help me invest in particular companies but I am really looking for a more balanced mutual fund that is divested from fossil fuels.

My appointment with the Edward Jones representative is not until September so stay tuned.

Through my research, I learned that VanCity Credit Union has developed a fund that is divested from fossil fuels. The fund is called IA Clarington Inhance Global Equity SRI Class and it can be bought through our local Credit Union. The disadvantage with this fund is that it is an equity fund so it has more risk. We've been reminded of the risks in the dramatic events in the financial sector this week.

I think that if people keep asking their financial institutions for fossil-fuel-free investment options those institutions will eventually respond, just as VanCity did. 

I'm receiving e-mails from several campaigns that promote fossil fuel divestment. One interesting one is the Guardian newspaper's Keep it in the ground campaign. Another interesting group is 350.org. These campaigns try to persuade big investors to divest: Bill Gates, universities and pension funds. They don't seem to have much for small investors like me. Globe.net also has an excellent newsletter that deals with climate change issues from a business perspective.

Post Script, September 3

This week I was able to meet with Chris Bostock at Edward Jones in Revelstoke. Edward Jones does have access to a fossil fuel free mutual fund but Chris also talked with me about creating a guided portfolio where the client chooses the companies s(he) invests in. It is still done in a balanced way and guided by the Edward Jones representative. This option was also offered by the banks and Investor's group using their external brokers.

The positive side of this is that I don't have to include companies that I have concerns about and I can support companies that I believe in. The negative sides are that I am not as knowledgeable about investing as a professional would be and the minimum investment is a lot more than many people can afford - a $50,000 minimum. 




Monday, 10 August 2015

Inspirations - building green, conserving energy

The lovely wood home of John and Heather Pallas and the energy and water-saving ideas of Inge Anhorn are some of the inspirations discussed in this blog post.

There are a lot of people thinking about green living and putting those thoughts into practice. In this blog I want to introduce you to some of them. 

This past Thursday, the North Columbia Environmental Society's Sustainable Living Committee organized a Green Home Tour. It was well attended by some very knowledgeable people so the conversations were fascinating. My house, with my off-the-grid project was the first of the three homes visited. Basically, my house introduced the ideas of reducing energy consumption and working with the elements. The other two houses focused on beautiful, energy-efficient home design; sourcing local, more environmentally friendly materials; and reusing and repurposing materials to avoid waste.

The second house, designed by Greg Hoffart of Tree Construction, working with David Arnott of Stark Architecture, is the home of Francois Desrosiers and Andrea Ferguson. It is a gorgeous 721 square-foot house with an open-concept kitchen-living room and large windows, strategically placed to take advantage of natural light. 

Greg acted as the general contractor and was able to find local and reused building materials. The hardwood floors were made from wood ends from Take to Heart mill in Revelstoke, which saved them money. Even though the wood was of different widths, they made it work to produce a beautiful floor. Another wonderful feature was the use of repurposed wood from an old barn for the wall behind the wood stove in the main room. 

Greg stressed that homes don't need to be huge to accommodate, say, an enormous table that is only used a few times a year. We often build homes for the biggest possible use (peak use) and we pay for building, heating and cooling all that space when we barely need it. He also stressed the value of good-quality insulation and windows. Francois and Andrea's home uses wood as its primary heat with electric baseboard back-up. The front has been wired for solar electricity so that is easy to install if they choose that option - I wish I had done that! 

The third house is owned by John and Heather Pallas. John and Heather wanted to build a beautiful, comfortable home that was light on the environment, using local and reused materials whenever possible. The house was constructed with pre-fabricated, solid-wood wall panels from the Take to Heart mill. The wall panels are insulated with wood fiber. In their effort to keep their environmental footprint as low as possible, the walls used no metal screws. Instead, dry wood screws were used. Once in place, the wood screws expand to match the moisture content in the walls, creating a very secure fit. 
Dining area of home, featuring harvest table crafted by John Townley

The timber frame features of the house were constructed from pulp-grade, locally logged Douglas fir logs. One large slab was crafted into a stunning harvest table by local wood artist John Townley. 

John and Heather are skilled at finding reused items for their home. They bought their beautiful fireplace from a building that was being demolished or renovated in Whistler. Their cabinets and several mattresses were bought for a fraction of the original price because they had been returned to stores. 

Their lovely garden, featuring metal art, was xeriscaped, requiring no watering. Pathways were made of crush gravel and the only lawn was in the front of the house, again requiring no watering because of the shade from the surrounding trees.

Thinking about the construction of my home four years ago, I wished I had visited these houses before I built. I would have used less toxic wood stains and would have sourced my wood floorboards locally. I have written in other posts about speed leading to energy waste. Once again, concerns about speed during the construction of my home resulted in less environmentally appropriate choices. As Revelstoke, and other communities, attract and nurture builders who are knowledgeable about green building, we will have more experienced people to go to as we plan the green homes and buildings of the future.


*  *  *

The second source of inspiration is a local institution: 80-year-old Inge Anhorn. Here I am reproducing (with permission) in blog form an article that I wrote for the Revelstoke Current:


Very few people in Revelstoke have thought more about energy conservation than Inge Anhorn. Inge, who will be 80 in December, is known for gliding down the streets of Revelstoke on her signature folding bicycle and for selling hand-woven and knitted items at the farmer’s market.


Over the years, Inge has collected some thoughtful tips for conserving energy – or rather, avoiding waste. When she cooks something on the stove, she covers the pot with a glass pot lid, placed upside down. On that lid, she places a smaller pot, covered with a lid.

The second pot may contain butter that she needs to melt, a sauce or other food that she needs to heat up. The heat from the first pot, which would have just gone into the air, is then doing double service. (Extra pot lids can be found at the thrift store).

Inge also turns off the heat on the stove a few minutes early, letting the food sit to cook the extra amount over the cooling element.

When Inge sees waste heat, she sees an opportunity to do something with it. Although she has insulated the pipes of the water heater in her laundry room, heat still escapes so she hangs small things like rags and wash cloths on them. That is also a good place to dry cloth bags that she has washed.

She air-dries all her laundry on a wooden rack. “I can use the sun or the little bit of heat that’s around to dry my clothes,” she said. “I don’t know what it costs to use a drier. Maybe $1 a load. In my case that would be two loads a week. That is eight loads. That might amount to $10 a month and $120 a year. That’s a lot of money for someone on a pension or even on smaller incomes.”

Another energy-saving strategy came from Nicoline Beglinger, co-owner of Selkirk Mountain Experience, a back-country skiing company based near the remote Durrand Glacier. As Inge explained, fuel has to be helicoptered in to the chalet at great expense so to conserve energy Nicoline would fill kettles and pots with water at night and let it warm to room temperature. By morning the water would be a few degrees warmer and that meant using less fuel to heat it.

Being organized also makes a difference in conserving energy, Inge said. Before she opens the fridge door she thinks about all the things she needs to take out and before she returns items to the fridge she assembles them all on the counter. “That way I only need to open the fridge door once.”

Inge still has her driver’s license but she gave up her car eight years ago when it became too expensive to maintain. “Why pay for a car when it just sits there most of the time and I can go with my feet or my bike? It’s a little awkward not to have a car because I can’t go on the spur of the moment to Vernon or take a drive” but generally Inge enjoys the exercise of walking and biking. 

Inge’s concern about conservation and avoiding waste dates back to her childhood in Germany during World War II. Water was metered and the family went to great lengths to avoid wasting it.

“Every drop counted because it cost money,” she said. “My family tried to preserve it and get as much use out of water as we could. That meant making the water work double or three times.

“Our clothes were washed by hand and boiled, not in a machine. That meant the clothes were washed in soapy water, rinsed, rinsed, rinsed (in separate buckets), until it was all clean. The soapy water was used to clean toilets or wash floors. The next water was used to water plants or wash the stairwells in the building. The next water was stored until you used it all up. That was a very big thing. That made a big impression on me. Even today I still use that idea.”

As a child, Inge remembers hauling water from a standpipe for the community garden and for her grandfather’s bee-keeping house. They weren’t allowed to run around with it or spray it.

“That was totally unheard of,” she said. “It’s nice for children (to play with water) but in my mind people should respect water a little bit more than they do.”

“One drop of water is nothing. If a family saves 100 drops and you multiply that by 30,000 Canadians, that’s a lot of drops. That’s how I look at it.”

Even in Revelstoke where water is relatively plentiful, when Inge runs water to make it hot, she takes a bucket to collect the cold water and uses it later to wash her hands or water plants.

For Inge, “You don’t need to use resources just because they’re handy. With a little bit of extra effort you can do without. Even if I made $100,000 a year, it doesn’t mean I need to spend a resource when I can do without it. That’s my philosophy. It might not mean much to other people but to me it’s a practice that I like to do.”

With her emphasis on conservation, I thought that Inge might be a person who saves things just in case they might be useful one day. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Inge’s apartment is free of clutter. It is fresh and light with lots of open space.

I don’t save things that I don’t use. Let someone else use it,” she said. She saves a few jars and a few yogurt containers to store food but the rest goes to recycling – or if they’re usable, to the thrift shop. “I don’t want clutter because I don’t want my children to go through a nightmare.” 

Also, things get old, she said. “You have something in your house sitting there for 20 years. By the time you leave this world the stuff is too old for the thrift shop. What happens? It gets thrown out. It’s better to give it away while it’s still useful to other people. They can still make a buck on it and your house is clean.” 

As a final piece of advice, Inge stresses that time is precious so it should be used purposefully. “I don’t want to waste my time in a way that doesn’t interest me. I want to do things that are important to me and that’s why I want to use my time in a positive way.”

Westerners have become used to living as if resources are plentiful. As we adapt to new realities brought on by the threat and realities of climate change, designers and engineers are striving to develop more efficient technologies that maintain our lifestyles while relying less on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy.

The other side of the equation is the practice of consuming and wasting less. As Inge’s habits and my off-the-grid project try to show, simple adjustments can lead to less energy waste and that can only be good for the planet and for future generations.



Sunday, 9 August 2015

Keep it cool. Keep it light.

Upstairs apartments can be very hot in the summer and renters often have limited ways to keep their upstairs apartments cool. One simple trick is to put sheets of reflective insulation inside windows on the side of the apartment where the sun is shining. This idea was shared by my upstairs tenants, Marc Paradis and Maria-Lynn Johnson (pictured here).
I am very lucky to have thoughtful, inspiring people around me who really think about energy use and the environment. I am enjoying the challenge of living off-the-grid and almost fossil fuel free (my four car trips excepted) but what makes the project especially worthwhile is the conversations I'm having with like-minded people.

The top floor of my house is a rental suite and my tenants are a wonderful couple, Maria-Lynn Johnson and Marc Paradis. Maria-Lynn and Marc have been involved in several co-housing projects (shared houses where single people and couples live together in a deliberate community) and feel that shared housing is one important way to address social isolation, share resources and reduce our environmental impacts. For Marc, single detached housing, with very few people occupying big spaces, is a major contributor to climate change.

Marc is also a builder and has been working on energy-efficient building for about 20 years. When the temperatures rose this summer, Marc and his wife Maria-Lynn put reflective insulation in their windows, in addition to closing the curtains, to reduce the heat. The result is impressive. This simple technique resulted in a temperature reduction of several degrees. One day, when it was well over 30 degrees C outside at 3 pm, it was a relatively cool 26 degrees C inside. (I will provide you with more temperature details later).

This is an effective and inexpensive technique for people living in upstairs suites or any other place requiring cooling in the summer. The reflective insulation - like two sheets of aluminum foil with bubble wrap between them - is readily available for $4 a foot or less at local hardware stores. Marc points out on his website that there are more expensive options for passive cooling like In'Flector (a reflective, see-through-radiant barrier insulator) or external rolling sun-shades outside the window. However renters often don't have the option or the money to install these things.

Of course, covering windows with insulation reduces the light in the apartment. Often only one side of the house requires reflective insulation at a time so other windows might provide light. If you need to turn on lights, it is worth noting that LED lights are not only more efficient, they give off much less heat than incandescent lights. Another reason to change your light bulbs.

Remembering that hot air rises (convection), having operable transom windows other operable windows that allow air to escape in the upper part of the room is helpful. Marc and Maria Lynn also turn on the bathroom fan when it's very hot, sucking the hot air out of the room. Managing air flow by keeping windows closed on the sunny side of the house and open when it's cool also helps.

Marc suggested that another way to capitalize on convection and air flow is to open both the screened basement windows and interior doors leading to the stairway of my house. The airflow will push the cool air from the basement up the stairs, cooling the apartments above.

*  *  *

As for me, living off the grid is becoming easier and I'm pretty comfortable with the energy I have. If I'm careful and turn off electronics and lights when I don't need them, I generally have enough power through my solar system to meet my needs. As you might have read in my last blog, cooking on cloudy days is a challenge and entertaining with unpredictable sunshine is difficult but I'm getting used to it. This week was fairly sunny so I held three dinner parties while I could. I just work with what the elements give me.

One big luxury that arrived by mail just over a week ago was a LuminAID LED lantern. This product was developed by two graduate students in architecture at Columbia University, Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, who were trying to address the need for light of people affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They developed a solar lantern that can hold its charge for months and casts a good light. The lantern, which is like a light in a translucent plastic bag, is compact when shipped and is blown up like a balloon for use. It was featured on the ABC TV's show Shark Tank and has won several clean energy awards.

With this light I am able to read in my living room or sit comfortably with friends at the dining room table in the evening. I bought two lanterns at a cost of almost $40 each, including shipping. However, in keeping with my new practice of carrying one item with me when I need it (for example, my ipad which serves as my radio), I found that I only needed one lantern. Some friends loved the lantern and bought the other one from me.

I also have a nifty light solution in the bathroom. My friend Anna Mint, who has had her own adventures building a tiny house, loaned me a string of solar-charged IKEA garden lights. They come in lengths of 24 or 12 lights. With decorative bulbs added, this provides a nice, soft light for the bathroom. There is a detachable solar panel which I charge every few days in the garden and it works really well. I don't need a lot of light in the bathroom at night so this is just perfect for my needs. As with all my lights and electronics, I turn the light off when I'm not in the room as a solar charge is a precious thing and I don't want to waste it.  I have just ordered another set of these light strings for the porch to provide a bit of atmospheric light.

The lights in the bedroom and office are wired directly into my solar system. With 3-watt, 12-volt, soft white bulbs, they provide a very nice and bright light. I made a lampshade out of light orange tissue paper and wire for the office light. My bedroom light also shines into the porch, giving me enough light to read in my cosy porch in the evenings.

Finally, the little light in the kitchen that I wired into the 15-watt solar panel (that I bought two years ago in India) and car battery has stopped working. I don't think the 15-watt panel is providing enough charge. I plan to experiment with this as this is closer to the kinds of panels that are available in developing countries.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Food woes and my mighty, home-made rocket stove

My rocket stove, made out of five tin cans, used a minute amount of fuel to cook my dinner.
Adversity is the best impetus for experimentation. A summer of continuous sunshine would have made my off-the-grid summer very easy. So I guess it was a good thing that we've had a couple of weeks of cloudy weather and a fair amount of rain.

Since at least July 11th, after a very long heat spell, we've had primarily overcast days. For me, that means I have to be doubly careful with my electricity use because I don't know when I'll get a good charge in my batteries again. It also makes cooking - and entertaining - very complicated.

Most of the time I have been eating raw food or cooked food that is cold or luke-warm. Unless I plan to have a raw-food dinner I can't invite friends over because I can't count on enough sun to cook for them. A solar cooker is, after all, a slow cooker and requires hours of sun to properly cook food.

If I did manage to cook something, I would cook enough to have leftovers which I would just reheat - which takes less time. Still, putting meat out for two hours in half-hearted sunshine left me with worries of food poisoning - another reason I wouldn't share with friends.

Photo: Agathe Bernard
On the morning of July 18th I was scheduled to give a solar cooking demonstration for our NCES Sustainable Living Committee outside Big Mountain Kitchen. Luckily we had beautiful sunshine for the event and I was able to cook a sizzling sausage stew, accompanied by raspberry smoothies and home-made pesto on spiralized zucchini.

But then the clouds returned, just as I was wrapping up my demonstration.

Sausage stew before cooking at solar cooking demonstration.
Photo: Agathe Bernard
After so many cloudy days, I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for myself and was madly looking for options. On rainy, cloudy days it's nice to enjoy a hot dish or a hot cup of tea.

My family and friends have been wonderful. They continue to invite me over for hot meals. Applying the potluck rule, I bring a dish - often a Greek or tomato salad as the tomatoes and cucumbers in my garden are plentiful.




I began to experiment with quick-cook options. I was able to make an almost-cooked quinoa dish in two hours of sunshine one morning. I topped that with some tinned mussles, feta cheese and tomato for dinner and it was delicious.

The next day we had an hour and a half of sunshine around noon. I whipped up some eggs with onions from the garden, cheese, peppers and herbs and had a delicious and fully-cooked omelet.

In the meantime I researched every alternative to cooking with solar or fossil fuels (see below) that I could find.

I found the website instructables.com to be very helpful. There were several items that explained how to produce biogas that can fuel a small stove using compost and cow manure (I would use horse manure as that is more readily available). The process takes about 10 days but I would happily eat cold, raw food if I could accomplish that!

The downside is that it doesn't seem to produce much gas and it seems to be better suited to warmer climates. If it were warm here, I'd be using solar. Unless I become very desperate it doesn't seem to be practical for my project.

I also researched other ways of generating electricity such as using a biolite campstove to trickle-charge my phone or building a bicycle- or wind-powered electrical generator. The latter two would help me charge my appliances but they wouldn't help my cooking situation. The biolite requires small amounts of wood (see below) and I need more electricity than it would likely provide.

My cousin, Heather, has been researching fuel-efficient cooking technologies. She mentioned the rocket stove, which uses very little fuel. I like the idea of experimenting with low-fuel cooking techniques, although it meant adjusting my rules a little to allow fire for cooking.

I found instructions for a rocket stove made out of five tin cans on instructables.com. I was able to get an empty big can from the deli section of Cooper's Foods. I raided my neighbour's recycling bag for the other four cans. The latter cans were slightly bigger than those mentioned on instructables, but it was what I had and it worked.

But there was a problem. After a long heat spell the fire hazard rating in much of southern BC is high. In our area, the Southeast region, there is currently a ban on open fires and campfires. I was sure that my rocket stove was safe, especially after so much rain, but would it be permitted? I have a nice stone patio close to a hose bib so I had a good, safe set-up but I also didn't want to break the rules with a public project.

I phoned the fire department to find out if I could use the stove and the answer was no. According to the assistant fire chief, "The prohibition does not apply to cooking stoves that use gas, propane briquettes, or to a portable campfire apparatus with a CSA or ULC rating that uses briquettes, liquid gaseous fuel, so long as the height of the flame is less than 15 centimeters. The use of any apparatus that does not meet these specifications is prohibited."

This means people have no legal options to fossil fuels except briquettes; home-made stoves seem to be out of the question. In my mind, this discourages experimentation and innovation, something we need right now as we try to adapt to climate change.

I'm not inclined to use charcoal briquettes as they are much more process and polluting than what I am proposing. However, the thought of manufacturing briquettes out of waste material is appealing. I might pursue that.

Anyway, after I told my friend Maria-Lynn, that the fire department vetoed my stove, she said she had recently come back from volunteering with a 'Learn to Camp' program with Parks Canada at Mount Revelstoke National Park, right next to our town. She mentioned that the fire hazard rating in the park is low.

It is just a short hike up Mount Revelstoke to the national park and I could just taste the sausages I would soon be cooking.

I phoned Parks Canada and even brought my stove to their reception. The response was
enthusiastic and soon I headed back home with my stove in hand and official confirmation that I could use it at a fire pit in the park.

My dad and I up Mount Revelstoke, probably in the early 1980s.
I packed dinner for three and invited my friends Maria Lynn and Marc to join me for a meal up at the Monashee cabin and lookout. The stove, which is insulated by sand, weighs just over six pounds so the pack, with food and stove, was fairly heavy.

It was an hour-long walk up the mountain to the cabin, up a beautiful trail, past where we scattered my father's ashes only two months ago. Dad and I had walked that trail together so many times that it felt like he was joining me on my adventure.

Unfortunately I had forgotten that the road up Mount Revelstoke closes at 4:30. My friends never managed to join me, despite their valiant efforts. Still, I got to try out my rocket stove and that, and the beautiful view was well worth the hike. Ironically, this was one of the few sunny evenings and I could have cooked at home with my solar cooker.





The rocket stove was really interesting. It uses very little fuel. To say that I used kindling as fuel would exaggerate the size of the wood. I brought up two tiny scraps of wood and some newspaper. I was able to gather some twig-sized pieces of wood at the cabin. I found that if I pushed more than two small pieces of wood into the stove the fire would go out. With this first effort, it did not burn as hot as I hoped but it cooked my sausages and bacon with very little fuel. (Here I am showing a before and after shot of the fuel consumed).




My rocket stove before I lit it.


As I walked down the mountainside the moon was out and the view was spectacular. Despite the hike and relatively heavy load for a simple dinner, I felt that my experiment was well worth it.

I don't think my rocket stove constitutes an 'open fire.' When the pot is on it there is no flame to be seen. I hope that some day soon I'll be able to use it in my back yard.

The moon was shining on my way down and the view of Mount Begbie was spectacular!

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Changing habits: Lifestyle and energy use

My neighbour, 96-year-old John Augustyn, still splits his wood and piles it neatly for the winter.
My 96-year-old neighbour, John Augustyn, has a beautiful vegetable garden. By mid-July his sunflowers and cucumber vines reach well above our heads. His trees are heavy with fruit: apples, pears and plums. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries and peas are done. Tomatoes and beans are ripening. His endives are planted in preparation for the fall and winter. 

A huge stack of wood is piled neatly under the spruce tree by his driveway. Each piece stripped of bark and limbs and cut precisely 16 inches long. John’s family helps out a lot, but John does the lion's share of splitting and stacking the wood.

John is the last remaining World War II veteran in our town and he is happy to tell stories of his many narrow escapes. Almost every day, once the ground is clear of snow, he is out in his garden, weeding, watering, planting and harvesting. He doesn’t waste anything: if a rake handle breaks or a chainsaw breaks down he tries to fix it. He uses repurposed electrical cable to tie up his plants. He moves slowly but with purpose and he gets a tremendous amount done.

By contrast, my life has felt very rushed and complicated. Juggling several jobs and volunteer activities, caring for aging parents and building and renovating several houses while trying to spend quality time with family and friends, I have found myself jumping in my car and dashing from place to place. I always seem to be carrying something heavy or just needing to make every minute count and my car has been my default form of transportation.

I live in a small, compact mountain town with a population of about 8,000 people. Most places can be reached by bicycle within five or ten minutes. I have also been active for several years with our local environmental organization, the North Columbia Environmental Society, and I’m very concerned about climate change.

I know we need to curb our use of fossil fuels significantly. Why, then, was I jumping into my car every time I needed to go somewhere? If I am not cutting back on my energy use, what hope is there that others, who may be less concerned, will do what is needed to help prevent a climate disaster?

I began to look at my other habits. I often turn on lights in my house even in the daytime when I can see well without them. I turn on the computer and then leave to do other things. I leave the radio on all day, even when I’m away from home. And I use hot water much more than I need to – another default.

Food is another area of waste. In the spring I often over-plant my garden and then find I don’t have time to harvest it all – not even to give it away. My fridge is often far too full and too often I find produce that I bought on impulse, with visions of a wonderful dish that I would make, spoiling in the bottom of my crisper.

I notice that when I’m in a rush I spend more on groceries and often buy things that I already have. As a result, my cupboards are jam-packed with food.

The same situation goes with the rest of my ‘stuff.’ After my parents passed away earlier this year, I inherited their belongings and I have a lot of my own that I have collected over a lifetime: books, travel souvenirs, dishes with sentimental attachment, and stationary, art supplies and tools that just might be useful one day. The ongoing challenge of dealing with my family’s and my own possessions was taking up far too much time and energy.


When I looked at my lifestyle I could see the connection between rushing around wasting – wasting energy of all sorts, including my own physical energy. Watching my neighbour work steadily in his garden with such wonderful results, I wondered what my life would be like if I changed my habits, slowed down, and acted more deliberately.

Changing habits

My off-the-grid challenge is helping me come to terms with my habits that lead to wasted energy. Here I will share six changed or changing habits that are, for the most part, saving me time and energy.

Change #1: Stop turning on lights during the day
I started with the simple changes. Even before the project started I stopped turning on lights in the daytime. This was an easy habit to break. I had built my house with nice, big windows. There was no need for extra light when the curtains were open during the day. I only needed to close the curtains or blinds for privacy while changing or to shade the room from intense sunlight. There was always enough light to see comfortably.

Change #2: Stop driving and start biking and walking
Keystone meadows in full bloom, looking back at Mount Begbie
in the distance.
This was one of my worst habits but the change has not been that hard. Once I told myself that using the car was not an option, I adapted quickly to hopping on my bike. I was driving because I'd get places faster but I'm not noticing much difference. Quite often I'm faster on a bike because I don't have to find a parking spot.

I do miss my car when I want to carry heavy things or go longer distances. I always have several projects on the go - like building a flagstone patio at the back of my house. I need to gather some flagstones so I'm looking at getting a bike trailer for larger loads. As I clean out my house, a trailer is also useful for hauling things to the thrift shop or to the recycling depot.
Paint brushes, arnica, anemone and lupins in full bloom on
the Keystone and Standard Basin trail north of Revelstoke.

I have given myself a budget of two car rides a month. I confess that I have borrowed one of my August rides as visitors have come through town and the meadows on our mountaintops are in full bloom. I could not resist joining friends on hikes during the peak of flower season.
 Change #3: Stop being reactive, commit less and plan my days and weeks
When life becomes so busy, I often find myself running around all day and never feeling caught up. Life feels like a race with no ending. So I take short-cuts like driving and buying items because I'm not sure where they are at home. Because I'm rushed, I often forget things and have to make two trips when I could have made one. I'm pretty sure that my neighbour, John Augustyn, doesn't do this.

This project has forced me to plan my days, putting the big and routine things first. I still juggle several contracts but have started to plan my weeks and days so that I'm working on a set project at a set time. I have also started to cut down on my volunteer commitments, doing only what suits my time and interests. This has given me more time to work on my own projects at home or just to read or relax, something I haven't done for a while.

Because I'm cooking by the sun I need to look at the weather forecast so that I can plan my meals well in advance and have a Plan B in case the sun is not out enough. This has been a change and it's not been easy. Cooking exclusively by the sun - other than raw food - has complicated my life. I am working on finding another option.

Change #4: Focus more and turn off appliances when not in use
For this off-the-grid project I deliberately kept my energy production and storage light so that I would experience the energy that I'm using, not take it for granted. With only a 250-watt solar panel and a 12-volt battery I often can't charge my laptop and other small appliances and I always need to keep my small fridge running. 

This has made me very aware of the electrical energy I use. As I write this, I only have 32% of my laptop battery left, the alarm on my solar system went off when I tried to charge it, indicating that I'm very low on power, and it's a cloudy day with no promise of sunshine. 

That means that I need to be very careful about the power I use. I no longer leave my laptop on to do other things. If I'm writing or working on my laptop then that's all that I'm doing. 

I have also become strategic with my appliances. I have discovered that my iPad consumes much less energy because it has fewer programs running in the background. It has become my radio (my solar radio won't run on days like this) and my computer, where I check e-mails and compose articles before I transfer them over to my laptop. I bought a little keyboard that connects wirelessly to my iPad and that works well. My manual typewriter is my ultimate back-up for writing.

Change #5: Get into the habit of reducing possessions
My house is 916 square feet plus I have a workshop, cool room and storage room in the basement. That should be plenty for all my possessions. But over the years, I have accumulated a lot of 'stuff' and I inherited my parents' belongings. 

Over the past year, and especially the past two months since my father passed away, I have made good progress in getting rid of things and using things up, with the help of my sister, Krista, and other family members. We have a good thrift shop in town and a good recycling system.

I find that I'm spending less time looking for things now. I have almost everything that I need and if I buy anything then I have a rule that I must get rid of something or things at least twice the size of the item I bought.

I have also given myself quotas. My mother saved almost every jar that came into the house. I have decided to save only canning jars with set sizes of lids. I enjoy canning but I only need so many jars so I set myself a limit: 40 of one size; 30 of another; and 10 spice jars. That's more than enough.

Change #6: Timing: Working with the elements
Similar to my changed habit of not turning on lights during the day, I'm trying to pay attention to the elements and time of day when I plan activities. I have long used the unheated back porch as a refrigerator in the winter and dried my laundry outside when the sun is hot. Cooking with solar heat makes me plan my meals according to the sun and I can see myself eventually moving toward a mid-day cooked meal because that's when the sun is hottest.

Using solar energy, I seem to be able to charge my appliances better during the day, after the sun has been shining a few hours, than at night or first thing in the morning. I'm not sure why that is if my battery is not full but it seems to be the case. By paying attention to this, I can get more out of my electronic appliances.

I'm only just beginning to explore the ways we can adapt our routines to work with the elements rather than using technology to overcome the elements. 

*  *  *

Almost half way into my off-the-grid summer, I'm finding that these six habits are saving me both physical and other forms of energy. My set-up isn't ideal for perfect comfort but I continue to putter (I'm building myself a rocket stove and bringing in some new lights) and tweak my experiences.

I think many people can identify with my experience of leading a rushed and reactive life. Perhaps some of these habits might lead to the slow and purposeful life I observe in my neighbour.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The dreaded task: laundry




Photo: BR Whalen


One of my least favorite tasks is washing laundry by hand. I have lived at least five years of my life without access to washing machines - in various parts of Africa, India and Nepal - and I have never gotten used to hand-washing. Usually I employed someone locally to wash laundry for me but quite often I did it myself and my fingers feel chafed just thinking of it.

Now, here I am again without a washing machine. What should I do?

I pulled out the book called Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency by Chris Peterson and Philip Schmidt, the one that had the instructions for the solar cooker, and found instructions for making a manual washing machine. It had a hand-pump and it just might work.

I showed my friend, Lawrence Davies, the picture and he called me up the next day ready to start the project. With friends like Lawrence and his wife Sherrin I can't procrastinate! Besides, it was still June and I could still use power tools so there was no delaying the project.

Between us, we found all the lumber and bolts needed, I bought a bucket with a lid at Home Hardware and we were ready to go. We set up operations in Lawrence's carport and brought the tools out from his workshop under the porch. There was a sign on the door that said 'Mancave' and I was honoured to be allowed in. Lawrence was hopping along with his foot in a cast but that didn't stop him one bit.

Let me be clear. I may be going off the grid for a summer but I love power tools. Since helping with the construction of my house four years ago I have learned the value of having the right tool for the job and getting work done fast. Lawrence has an an amazing Shopsmith multi-tool in his workshop that dates back to the 1950s or 1960s. It runs a table saw, a bandsaw and an air compressor that can be turned into a drill press. "My wife thought it would be the most wonderful tool that I could ever have and she was right," he said.



Lawrence's wife, Sherrin prepared us a delicious lunch and plenty of cool
drinks for a very hot day. She also shared her delicious no-cook breakfast
recipes from the days when the couple ran a bed and breakfast.
Photo: BR Whalen

The night before my project started I did a big load of laundry. I held out for as long as I could but within a week, well, the laundry had to happen. The washer works ok but there are still clothes that need to be washed on my Grannie's old-fashioned scrub board.

Drying clothes on a wooden clothes drying rack is no problem for me as I don't own a drier; that's how I always dry my clothes. One difference is that I hang the clothes dripping wet and let them drip for a while before bringing the rack in, if necessary.

Thanks Lawrence and Sherrin. And thanks Grannie. I'll bet you never thought this would ever come back into use.