Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Magical Ozark Mountain Christmas Memories

The lobby of our hotel.
For years, I was always a bit sad that we very rarely got to have Christmas in our own home, but instead Christmas Eve found us traveling several hours to spend Christmas with extended family. It was fun sharing Christmas with extended family, but we missed waking up Christmas morning in our own beds, with presents under our own tree, and building memories of our home.

However, as is normal for our family, we created quirky traditions that became an integral part of this annual trip 'over the river and through the woods' like making sure we listened on the card radio to Hispanic Christmas Carols as we drove to the Chicago suburbs. Christmas Eve just wasn't complete until I heard 'Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?' We also made sure we attended the Christmas Eve candle light service at our church before making the trip; no matter how hectic the last minute preparations were, with all the gifts and suitcases packed into the car for the trip, when we were walking into church, the true peace of the Christmas season would wash over me. That annual reminder of our true Christmas celebration always put everything else into perspective.

This year, just like many other things in our life, Christmas was again going to be different. Alan and I were on our own and we could do whatever we wanted - even stay home this year for Christmas! So what did we decide to do for Christmas... head to Branson, Missouri. This plan started to hatch when we discovered that Branson is famous for it's Christmas lights. After a bit of Googling, we realized a trip to Branson may be a fun Christmas adventure.

Roadside Charlie Brown trees.
So, just like all those 'Christmas Pasts' we packed up to drive over the river and through the woods for Christmas. Instead of a Christmas Eve departure, we left on Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve. We planned our schedule based on various activities we wanted our agenda to cover. The traditional Hispanic Christmas Carols were replaced with Bluegrass renditions as we drove through the Ozark Mountains.  As we neared Branson, there was a section of highway where someone had stopped along the roadside and randomly decorated  scraggly cedar trees with colorful, shiny Christmas ornaments. It was one of those things that would be a part of the magic of Christmas for children riding by on their way to grandma's house. Had we known about them, Alan and I would have brought some of our solar Christmas lights so that these rag-a-muffin trees would light up as well!

Washboard Leo - a member of the Cajun band.
We arrived in Branson, and the first stop on our agenda was Silver Dollar City. I had some trepidation about going to an amusement park in December, and I had my doubts that the Christmas decorations would live up to their description. I was expecting a half-staffed amusement park that was making a feeble attempt to cash in on Christmas, and I will be the the first to admit I was wrong. The first surprise was how busy the park was. It was a beautiful, warm day and many people came out to ride the rides and see the special holiday shows and light displays. We enjoyed two musicals - Dicken's Christmas Carol, which had amazing set changes, and It's a Wonderful Life which was a new production this year. We also enjoyed the Cajun Christmas music show. There were so many shows scheduled, we had to plan out the day beforehand to make sure we could fit everything in. It was also wonderful just walking around enjoying all the effort that was put into transforming this park into a Christmas Wonderland.

Alan is standing in front of one of
light covered buildings.
Alan told me there were almost a million lights in the park. I, of course, had to examine their effort in detail and was amazed at the care that was taken to set up the light display. Every building was not only outlined in lights, but had vertical rows of lights spaced about six inches apart that covered the facades, and each strand of lights had a been stapled to the buildings between each and every light. The large trees were incredibly wrapped so that all the branches were individually illuminated and lots of pines were added to the landscaping. Lights were not just wrapped around them, but also painstakingly worked into the entire tree. Add in twinkling snowflakes and strings of lights across all the walkways and it was truly magical as darkness fell on the park. Even the food vendors offered winter treats like warm apple dumplings, hot cider, cocoa and even wassail (we skipped the 'Red Velvet Funnel Cakes'). And best of all, there was no 'Happy Holidays' here, but a heart 'Merry CHRISTmas!'

One float in the
Parade of Lights
After the Parade of Lights that wound through the park, we had one more show on our agenda, which was called 'Homestead Pickers'. When we reached the venue, we discovered it was in a small log cabin. All the other shows had been in large, packed theaters, so I thought the cabin was just the entrance that would open up to an outdoor amphitheater, but I was wrong. We stepped into the cabin and found it was filled with an assortment of wooden chairs and had an old fashioned bedstead in the corner. This venue would only hold about 35 people.

We took our seats and were at first disappointed because there was elderly rather 'rough' lady in the audience that was talking local politics (rather loudly) and then when the first musician of the bluegrass band arrived, he continued the discussion with her. Then, as they got started we discovered this lady was not only a long time resident of Branson but also volunteered each year to tell a delightful mountain-folk rendition of the  The Night Before Christmas each year at this venue.

The Homestead Pickers & Jessie
The schedule said the bluegrass music was only a 25 minute show followed by a telling of a Christmas story, and that this story only occurred after the last show of the evening, so we were glad we had put this last on our agenda. After Jessie had finished her story, which again included the true meaning of Christmas as was intertwined throughout the Silver Dollar City experience, the bluegrass band began to play some requests. Children in the audience had their requests ready with songs I had never heard of. They turned out to be some silly songs about chickens and turkeys and it became apparent that this was a traditional stop for many of the people in this little log cabin.

As we were enjoying the music, there is a knock on the back door of the cabin, next to where the band is playing. A musician  opens the door and in walks 'Uncle Jake' in his red flannel Union Suit, who announced he was the owner of the cabin.and was coming in to go to bed. Since his house was full, including a few people sitting on his bed, he sat down with the band to talk for a while. What followed was a very hilarious half-hour with a lot of improvisation that even had the band members cracking up. The audience even started chiming in with 'one-liners'. The 25 minute show went on for over an hour and as we were leaving that cabin, Alan remarked on the fact that while we had thoroughly enjoined our entire experience at Silver Dollar City, that last hour spent in a tiny, packed, over-heated log cabin was by far the highlight of the day.

Day Two - Christmas Eve Day
We started out the morning with a bit of relaxed window shopping that included picking up a couple more Ozark related ornaments to add to our tree next year. When planning our trip, Alan researched online for a place that we could go to for Christmas Day brunch. The place he found also had listed on their web site that they were having a non-denominational Christmas Eve service at their conference center, followed by caroling and a tree lighting ceremony, so we decided that was the Christmas Eve service we would attend this year. This resort was called Big Cedar Lodge, and it was amazing. As we drove through the entrance and down the twisting, turning drive, there were several signs directing RVs, buses and motorcycles to take an alternate route. We were stumped about the motorcycle ban on the road, and assumed it was due to the sharp twists and turns. However, as we neared the actual resort, we discovered vehicles had to drive 'dead slow' as they drove through two areas where springs flowed over the road. It is not that the place was run down and the springs had overflowed the road, this was actually a very high-end resort and the road was created with cobblestone sections to actually allow the springs to run unimpeded down through the landscape, including over the roads.
We approach the spring flowing over the road  ----and make the crossing.        A view of another crossing..

I tried to convince Alan that
we needed this fireplace at home.
The conference center was designed like a huge hunting lodge and beautifully decorated. We found the conference room that was designated for the Christmas Eve service and there were several hundred chairs set up. I had been expecting a small room with just a few people attending and a somewhat vapid rendition of a Christmas Eve service. Instead, a local evangelical pastor performs this service every year and it is attended by hundreds of people. There had been a mis-communication on the service time, so the choir was arriving a bit late. The pastor filled the time by telling a story of when they had almost had to cancel the service about 20 years ago due to a huge snow storm, but the lodge had brought them out to the service in 4-wheel drive trucks. Some of the people attending this year remembered that year and families have been coming to this service for many years as their traditional Christmas.

The room where the Christmas Eve service was held.
Besides the lovely service that was again Christ-centered with an evangelical message, there were very cute decorated sugar cookies and real hot cocoa (not that packaged stuff) which also added a little to the Christmas magic. Following the service, we drove to another part of the resort for the tree lighting ceremony. It was fun to see how excited the children were at this event, The lodge put in  lot of effort with crafts for the children, more hot chocolate and treats, bonfires and out-door heaters and carriage rides.

When we left the lodge to return to Branson, we decided to have dinner at someplace we said we always wanted go - Denny's. back in the 90's a Contemporary Christian Rock Singer came out with a song called 'Christmas at Denny's', a rather depressing little ditty, but a great way to build another memory! Then back to the hotel to enjoy Christmas Eve in the hot tub.

Day Three - Christmas
As I mentioned previously, we were having brunch at Big Cedar Lodge, so we jumped in truck and drove there once again. Brunch was amazing and it was fun texting and facebooking with friends and family, catching up on how the grandkids were enjoying their Christmas morning's. After brunch, and some further exploration of Big Cedar Lodge, we returned to our hotel for a relaxing afternoon, which is where I am at right now, sitting by the fire in the lobby writing this, so I have to stop until I can finish Day Four tomorrow.....Sitting here, we just recalled a tradition we had started several years ago with out kids which we may reinvent a bit later today. The final few Christmases we had spent traveling to the Chicago suburbs, we always left after Christmas dinner, but were hungry by the time we made it back to Wisconsin. So we had made it a tradition to go to our favorite local Chinese restaurant which was always open Christmas night. And since we had brunch at 10 AM today, we may feel a bit 'peckish' later on so Alan is Googling to see if we can find an open Chinese restaurant near by....

Day Four
An airport toy from Alan's childhood
that he thought he would
never see again.
First off, let me say there was a small Christmas miracle the day after Christmas. We were strolling through a quilt and fabric store and guess what I heard playing in the background? 'Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?'

After the fabric store, next on our agenda was a Toy Museum, where Alan had lots of fun showing me all the various toys on display that he had had as a child. The Toy Museum was also home of the Harold Bell Wright Museum. Harold Bell Wright is best known as the author of 'Shepherd of the Hills' although he also penned 17 other books. Shepherd of the Hills was turned into a play many years ago and it became the first attraction to ever reside in Branson, and it is now the longest running attraction as it is still performed in the outdoor theater.

The Christmas on the Trail Show
This is a good segue into our main activity today, the play is not performed in the winter, but the Shepherd of the Hills grounds are transformed into the Trail of Lights - a 2 1/2 mile drive through an animated light display. The Sons of the Pioneers chuck wagon dinner show, which precedes the play during the rest of the year, is transformed into a country and bluegrass Christmas show during the holidays. We spent an enjoyable evening of dinner and the Christmas themed cowboy show followed by a drive through the lights and then a trip up into Inspiration Tower, a 230 foot observation tower, to view Branson at night. A highlight of the evening is that the owners of Shepherd of the Hills were sitting right in front of us at the show and we were able to meet them.

Another photo of the lights at
Silver Dollar City
And so ends our first Ozark Christmas, tomorrow we pack up and head back to the property. For all of you that were disappointed that this blog entry did not involve our off-grid experiences, fear not - when we get back home we have to jump into a lot of projects because we have company coming in January and we have a lot of things to get done before they arrive.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's BeginningTto Look A Lot Like Christmas

In my last post, you learned that for many years Thanksgiving is the holiday that we put all of our effort and enthusiasm into. However, with this being our first off-grid Christmas, and being down in the Ozark Mountains, Alan and I decided it deserved some effort as well. OK, to be honest we were just excited to see what we could come up with.

First, we wanted some outdoor lights so that all our neighbors could 'ooh' and 'aah' at our glorious display as they drove past our house. We found solar charged Christmas lights at Big Lots, one of our favorite shopping destinations. To the right is a picture of one of the chargers. Each box contained a 12 foot string of 50 LED C6 multi color lights, a charger and both a yard stake and a mounting clip for versatility. We chose to use the mounting clips to attach the solar charges to the deck rails. We purchased three boxes, so our outdoor display is an amazing 150 lights which stretch into a dazzling 36 feet of luminous beauty along our front deck.
The outdoor display during the day...
... and at NIGHT!!!
OOH!!!!   AAH!!!!
Next came the tree. I had heard on the radio that there was a person that came to a nearby city (an hour away) every year to sell Christmas trees and I told Alan we should go there to buy our tree. Why there you may ask.... because this person brought his trees down from Wisconsin each year to sell them here in the Ozarks. So off we drove in Truck to get our Wisconsin Christmas tree. We pull into the the parking lot of the mini-golf course, which is where this tree sale is set up each year, and by the looks of the trees on display, you would have thought we had arrived on Christmas Eve rather than two weeks before Christmas. The available choices consisted of  four scraggly trees leaning up against each other in the middle of the lot and the workers were packing up their gear. They had sold out of trees already. So off we went to Lowe's to buy a tree from who-knows-where. While we were 'in town' I also stopped at Hobby Lobby to get some supplies for some special ornaments I wanted to make, more on these later.

Stringing the lights
We get the tree home, and first come the lights. We had also previously purchased Christmas lights for the tree at Big Lots. We had a box of 120 (two 60 light strands) of the small Italian style lights and a box of 60 larger lights that were the same conical shape as the lights in our wondrous outdoor light display. All of these sets were LED as well. Now these strings of lights were designed to be used in 'normal' houses with 'normal' outlets so we needed to plug them into one of our power inverters. Our wall outlets are 12V DC, the power inverter is plugged into the outlet and provides a 'normal' household voltage for the lights to plug into. Plug the first string into the power inverter and then add each string to the previous one just as usual.

Alan adds the tree top...
With the three strings illuminating our 7 foot Frasier Fir, we turned off everything else in the house (two ceiling lights at the time) and ran into the laundry room to see what the reading was on the charge controller. We wanted to know the amount of power our tree lights were pulling to determine how long we could bask in their beauty each day. I actually jumped for Christmas Joy when the load indicator displayed just 0.8 amps, which is less than running two of our overhead lamps. We can keep the tree lights on all evening - even all day if we do not have too many overcast days in a row.

A second rows of batteries (top shelf) have been added.
You may be familiar with the various television programs that are televised each Christmas season, the ones that show extreme Christmas light displays that people erect each year. Many of these shows include information on how home owners have had to re-do and expand the electrical feeds in their homes to be able to power these holiday monstrosities. Well, Alan must have had preconceived notions of our glorious display because the week prior to our Christmas decorating free-for-all he added four new batteries to our solar system which double our storage capacity.We now have just under 1,000 amp hours at 12 volts.

Earlier I mentioned the special ornaments I wanted to make for our tree. We had decided the tree itself should have a theme that reflects our new lifestyle, so I will finish off this blog with a display of photos of some of the ornaments on our tree. All of these represent various things that have entertained us here in the Ozarks:
Praying Mantis



Walking Stick

Blue Tailed Skink

Pileated Woodpecker


Another Armadillo (we are partial to them)


Lantern that Alan creatively 'lit'

Our Tree At Night

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

This is a Test....

"This is a test, for the next 21 day you will find yourself back on-grid. Your mission, should you accept, is to determine what you have missed most while pursuing your off-grid lifestyle..." 

 A Bit of History
Thanksgiving has always been our family's favorite holiday. I think one of the reasons is because it culminates our favorite time of year - that 'dead time', as fall is winding down and winter is nearing. Another reason is that we have striven to make Thanksgiving the holiday that is very personal to our immediate family. While Christmas always required trips to extended family, Alan and I designated Thanksgiving as 'our holiday' for building family memories and traditions.  And, as it is with the rest of our life, most of these traditions are not 'normal'.

As our family has grown over the years, so have the quirky traditions. Many years we have rented a vacation home for our Thanksgiving celebration. When the kids were growing up, we could get by with a three bedroom rental - parent's room, our daughter's room, and our son's room. The longest standing tradition is a quirky little movie Alan insists we all watch after Thanksgiving dinner.

Some of the artwork in this year's rental home.
I wonder how I could make it fit the rule that
everything has to have a use in our off-grid house.
Then, several years ago, we had to start modifying our rental requirements. Our youngest daughter's boyfriend,  would be joining us, so our rental needed four bedrooms that year. The new tradition we added that year was 'Cheese Races'. The following year they were married, but wait, our oldest daughter's boyfriend would be coming that year as well. With the need for 5 bedrooms, we could no longer rent at our usual place, so we searched and found a rental that used to be a Bed & Breakfast. I ran with the bed and breakfast theme and had 'welcome baskets' in each bedroom when the kids arrived. They enjoyed these so much (like Christmas stockings) that we decided to add another tradition, I provide the baskets and everyone adds little gifts to them anonymously as they arrive for the week, and yes, many of the gifts are very 'unusual'. The kitchen in that year's vacation home was amazing and we decided to add yet another tradition - a cooking contest. This was also the year our annual event was dubbed 'Turkey Palooza'.

I won't go into detail on how Turkey Palooza has expanded over the past few years, but I wanted to give this background to explain why it is an integral part of our 'test' this year. Because, you see, as the size of our vacation homes increased each year, so did their amenities. Large homes with professional kitchens, opulent bathrooms and even running water and unlimited power!

Jumping Back on The Grid
We have been off grid since mid August, our longest stint yet. And as we were preparing for the trip back up North, I found myself wondering if I would find myself realizing that there were many things that I was missing from the 'old life' once I was again immersed into the on-grid lifestyle.Would it be hard to give up the 'easy life' after three weeks and return to our off-grid chores?

The very first thing I need to share about our Turkey Palooza trip is very sad. As you may recall, our dog Maycee came down to the property in August. We originally planned to board her down here when we went back up North, but as we would be gone for three weeks, we decided to take her back up with us and then board her at her favorite kennel for the actual Thanksgiving week. Maycee has loved being down at the property. Although 14 years old, she enjoyed helping with chores outside and exploring the property with us. Just a couple weeks before we left we had the survey of the property completed and she walked the property lines with us, running ahead and around us exploring amongst all the trees and rocks.

Over the past few weeks we had noticed she had been drinking more and more water and we had to let her out several times each night. The night before we headed north, we realized she had suddenly gone completely blind, on the trip we had to pick her up to put her in and out of the back of Rodney (the Kia Sportage) and we had to talk to her constantly at each rest stop to keep her oriented. She was very distraught over her blindness, tripping over curbs and running into objects.  The place we were going to board her is also her vet, so we made an appointment as soon as we arrived to get her evaluated. We were pretty sure we would be needing to make 'that dreaded decision'. Our fears were confirmed as the vet agreed she was suffering and probably had both diabetes and cancer, she had lost 50% of her body weight! The vet felt she probably had only a couple weeks left and they would not be pleasant, so we said good-bye to her... We are so happy that she did get to spend time in the mountains with us, she had a wonderful 2 month adventure down here, but she would not be returning off-grid with us...

What Amazing Things We Saw
The shower in our master bedroom suite had
4 control knobs  - one for the shower head,
one for the side jets, one for the overhead rain
and one for temperature control. It should have come
with an instruction manual.
We arrived up North a week before the start of Palooza and we stayed with very dear friends. The first day there, I must have used the equivalent of 10 bottles of water for just one shower. (At the property, I limit myself to one of our storage bottles per shower which is about 3 gallons.) That first week Alan and I had fun exclaiming over the many 'wonders' we found at our friends house - like the pipe on the wall in their bathroom that provided a supply of unlimited hot water and the magical box in their kitchen where you put dirty dishes in and an hour later they came back out clean.

Our Palooza house was larger this year because my parents were coming out from Pennsylvania to join us, as well as our dear friends mentioned above. So, we were 'spoiled' with a lakefront vacation home for a week and then returned to our friends' lovely home for another week before returning to the reality of off-grid life.

What We Brought Back With Us
Our youngest daughter, along with her husband and son, and possibly our son, will all be coming down to the property in the next month or so and plan on staying for a month. With that in mind, Alan and I have been looking for a vehicle that would hold us all and be durable enough to take us to all the places we want to show them (like driving up and down our road to our driveway!) We decided a four door pick-up truck would be a good solution, one with a full size bench seat in the back. While up north, we found 'Hoss', pictured here. We can fit five people plus a car seat, and Hoss is a diesel, which was also on our list of criteria. We left Rodney, our Kia Sportage, up North for the time being so we did not have to drive two vehicles back home this time.

Cache and KayKay resting up after exploring.
We also had some special cargo with us on the return trip, our two cats -Cache and Ceilidgh
 (aka KayKay- our daughter named her Ceilidgh, which is pronounced kay-lee and is a type of Irish folk dancing). While the cats did not exactly enjoy the 12 hour trip riding in their cat carriers on Hoss's back seat, the 'kitty downers' we got from our vet made the trip much easier on us then it might have been. The medication was actually homeopathic drops that calm pets down during thunderstorms, fireworks, etc. These drops take a half hour to start working, during which time the cats demonstrated how noisy the trip would have been had we not stopped at the vet and picked up the medication.

We had decided we would keep the cats inside for their first few days at their new home, but since they are cats, that plan lasted for about half an hour. The cats love exploring their new home, both inside and out. I did sit down with them and explain the rules for their wild game safaris:
1. Mice and spiders are open season at all times in all locations.
2. Skinks, which they can identify by their shiny blue tails are never in season.
3. Birds may only be hunted in the wood behind the house and are limited to any birds I do not deem as 'cute'. The three bird feeders we just added at the front of the house are a bird sanctuary and no hunting is allowed there.

In regards to #1 above, we are not particularly happy with mice right now. While we were gone, they found a large bag of rice. We discovered this when I went to put a large rug back onto the living room floor which I had finished painting right before we left. I picked up the rolled carpet and grains of rice fell out of it. I carefully unrolled the carpet and found several cups of rice had been moved into the rolled up carpet. We remembered we had taken the bag of rice out of a bucket it had been sitting in and placed it on the floor, we checked and sure enough, there was a hole in the corner of the bag. The mice must have been extremely busy relocating the rice, besides the large amount in the rug, we have also found a cup or so inside a shirt that was lying on a box in our bedroom closet (the rug was in the guest room) as well as another cup or so inside a package of toilet paper in the bathroom cupboard under the sink. My thought was that they kept hearing me refer to the house as the 'honeymoon hotel' for insects and they decided to add some ambiance by throwing rice everywhere.

So, What Did We Miss?
While I was expecting to come up with a list of things I missed from the old life once we were living it again, the only list we came up with were the things we were missing from the property while we were up North! Yes, we miss friends and family when we are down here, but so much of our contact has always been by phone, text and email, it really hasn't been too difficult when we don't see them face to face as often. Skype also helps, and I bribe my children to send pictures of the grandchildren to my phone.

Instead of looking at each other while enjoying the on-grid-life amenities and saying "Boy, I really miss this", Alan and I would look at each other and say things like "Ahh, we would be pulling water at this time back home", or "I miss not bringing in wood every morning."

So now I am pondering - Did we fail the test because we did not have anything on our list that we miss from our old life? Or did we pass with flying colors because we have embraced our choice to increase our self-reliance and simplify our lives? I admit that our Turkey Palooza has become quite a financial extravagance over the years, one that we are very grateful for and will continue to share with our children as the Lord provides. But one of the best feeling I had as we prepared to once again hop off the grid was the realization that we were looking more forward to going back to what most people would consider a much 'poorer' lifestyle than what we could be living, and yet it makes us much happier and it is the life we choose!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mr. Wizard's Workshop

Hello to all of Arlene's faithful readers! Let me introduce myself, I am Alan, Arlene's husband and partner in our off-grid adventures! First, let us apologize for it being so long since the last blog entry, we have been busy since that post, but with larger projects that take awhile to complete, such as painting the living room floor. Not very exciting to blog about. Plus, we have both been busier than usual with client projects.

Right now Arlene is busy getting ready for our annual 'Turkey Palooza'!!!! Each year, for quite a few years now, we have rented a large house for the entire family to gather for Thanksgiving. Often friends join us for at least part of the week's events, which includes LOTS of board games, 'Cheese Races', and an annual Food Network style cooking competition. We leave tomorrow morning to head back north to finish preparing, and won't be back 'off-grid' until the end of the month. So, with much to get done before we leave in the morning, Arlene asked me to take over the blogging for this entry. Without further ado, I give you Mr. Wizard's Workshop!

This entry will be some of my geek exploits, some successful, some not so much, but hopefully all entertaining.

What Lassie? Alan's phone is down the well?!!

 Ever since we got our well operational, I have wondered what was down there. Visions of giant caves, perhaps with dark unseen creatures, or veins of gold or diamonds ran through my head. Each morning I draw 3 to 5 buckets of water from the 120 foot well, and one morning something grabbed the bucket on its way back up! Shivers ran up my spine, expecting at any second a tentacle to writhe up from the well. Like a good fisherman, I lowerd the bucket a bit, then rapidly hoisted it up, trying to 'set' my catch. But alas the bucket rose without further problem, guess it just snagged on the side of the well casing.

So my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to take my brand new Samsung Galaxy SIII phone and strap it to the bucket and lower it into the depth of the well while in video record mode. Yes, a risky plan, but the rewards could be astronomical! Arlene thought it brilliant too (once she stopped laughing), or at least that is how I interpreted the look she gave me.

The video is long, about 10 minutes, just to get to the bottom. I shot a faster descent, but it was just a blur. I believe that the resulting video would be fascinating to a geologist, but not so much to the rest of us. The first few minutes is a nerve rattling view of the sides of the plastic well casing, such drama! At one point you will even be gifted with a view of a seam where two sections join together! And then, oh my goodness, its hard to speak of it, ROCK! In all its hideousness, the rest of the video looks just like I imagine my colonoscopy  would look like. Unless I had told you where I had actually sent my phone, well, you would think it was someplace else. Watch for some of the denizens of these depths; at one point I thought I saw some yellow snails, probably poisonous, and I think a dead fly too. And once you see the ooze pouring down the sides of the well, like some beast leaking its life fluids, you will wonder how we drink this stuff. The answer is lots of filtering.

My dialog has to have your anticipation at an all time high, so here is the video!
 Oh, did I mention the bucket spins a bit?

I rode my bicycle past your... well, nowhere actually.

Do you remember this  from Gilligan's Island?
The professor built a stationary bicycle connected to a generator so that Gilligan could pedal and make power for their radio.

Well, we have one too! Bought a kit from pedalpowergenerator and a cheap 15 speed bike from a thrift shop. And then made a fun video:

Notice how my new bike was going nowhere fast, on a trip all by itself? You have probably seen electric powered bicycles for sale. Sort of like a battery powered moped. Just add an electric motor, connect it to a battery through a throttle, and viola!, you have an electric bike! But in this case that does not accomplish much, I want to put power INTO the batteries, not take it OUT! If I could jump on the bike quickly enough, and get my feet racing fast enough to catch up with the pedals, then pedal faster, well then all would be good. More likely I would kill myself. So a trip to civilization and a Radio Shack was needed to get a hefty sized diode.
A diode is an electronic valve for DC circuits, it will allow electricity to flow only in one direction, apply positive voltage to the side without the band, and it goes right through. Apply it to the other side and it is blocked. Adding this between the bike generator and the batteries prevents the battery power from getting to the generator and running it like an electric motor. You see, there is no difference between a DC motor and a DC generator, same device; apply power and its a motor, spin it manually and its a generator. So here is how it is supposed to work!

 A Watched Pot DOES Boil!

Now that we have a propane stove, it is very convenient to boil up water for coffee or tea. But we still need to be economical on our propane use. So I decided to compare our options to see which used less gas. We have a tea kettle, a basic pot with lid, and a Kelly Kettle.The Kelly Kettle is an aluminum chimney with dual walls that operates like a rocket stove.As the heat is drafted up the chimney, it gets lots of contact with the aluminum and heats the water. While designed for use with an open fire, I had high hopes it would work well on a stove top. 

Now for the results:

Even using a tin cup to trap the heat in the chimney, the Kelly Kettle was a poor choice. The pot was almost as fast as the tea kettle. So, if inquiring minds wanted to know, tea kettles win!

Side note: I also tested the Kelly Kettle using its intended open fire (wood scraps) against the tea kettle that was being heated with another small rocket stove. The Kelly Kettle again lost the race.

Eureka! A light goes off! (or on...)

Most solar electric systems that you may come across have a common feature; the storage batteries connect to a device called an inverter, which converts the 12 volts of DC power into the same thing you find in most homes, 120 volts of AC power. The reason for this is that most people really like all the AC devices and appliances they grew up with, and do not want to give them up. 

But... inverters are very inefficient. A lot of the solar power that was stored is lost in the conversion process. So Arlene and I made an early decision. While we do also have an inverter, it is for extrememly limited use, only for situations where we can not find an alternate means of doing something on 12 volts DC. Otherwise, every electrical device we have runs on 12 volts DC, directly off of our batteries (well, okay, through our charge controller to protect the batteries from being depleted too far). Our television runs on 12 volts. Our laptops, printer, and computer monitors all run off 12 volt DC-to-DC power converts. And, the point of this section, all of our lights run off of 12 volts DC.

We wanted to use the existing light fixtures and wall switches in the house, so we needed 12 volt DC light bulbs with standard screw in bases. Fortunately the RV industry comes to the rescue, since RVs are all powered by 12 volt DC batteries. There are three choices: incandescent, compact florescent, and LED.

Obviously we want our stored power to last as long as possible, nothing worse than suddenly finding yourself in the pitch dark because you used too much power. That brings us to the topic of power vs. light.

Most people think of the brightness of a lightbulb based on its wattage. This is because during the majority of the life of electric lighting we only had one usual choice, the incandescent  lightbulb. The amount of power that a bulb used, measured in watts, is what your electric bill is based on, the more watts you use, the higher your bill. And the more power, or watts that are used by a light bulb, the brighter it shines. So people got used to measuring the brightness of a light bulb in watts. Technically wrong, but it worked for so long.

Now that we have options, we need a way to compare apples to cumquats, of incandescent  to LED or compact florescent. Next time you are at the home improvement store, look at the package on a compact florescent bulb, you will see it hyping how few watts it actually uses, and then say its brightness  as compared to an incandescent bulb. Notice that the bulb in this pictures is 'as bright' as what you would expect a standard incandescent 100 watt bulb to be, but it only actually uses 23 watts.

So, for our 12 volt solar system, we know that we want the brightness to be what we are used to, but we also want the actual power consumption to be as low as possible. 

While we could use 12 volt incandescent bulbs, we won't because they are so inefficient and use so much power. Leaving us to choose between compact florescent or LED. LED have a few advantages; they are not fragile, contain no mercury, last very long, and light instantly and do not need to warm up. Turns out they are also much more efficient in power usage.

Now, not all LEDS are created equal. We visited a few alternative energy shows/expos and researched a lot. Early and easily obtainable 12 volt DC screw in light bulbs pull almost the same amount of power as the compact florescent bulbs. But, advances in LED design have resulted in some very efficient  products. Finding them is the hard part, so let me save you some time... sells two bulbs that we highly recommend, a 75 watt equivalent bulb and a 50 watt equivalent bulb.

 Here is how they compare:
   Compact florescent - 60 watt equivalent uses 15.6 watts of electricity.
   LED - 75 watt equivalent uses 7.2 watts of electricity.
   LED - 50 watt equivalent uses 4.8 watts of electricity.

On our single bulb fixtures we usually go with the 75 watt equivalent bulbs, and on our 2 and 3 bulb fixtures usually the 50 watt bulbs.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Mister Wizard's Workshop, thanks for letting me be your guest blogger today!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Goldilocks Zone

In the science community, the term Goldilocks Zone refers to that area in which a planet is the 'just right' distance from a star (not too hot and not too cold) for life to be possible. This week, it seems like we have been searching for Goldilocks Zones in regards to various projects around the property. Like the planetary Goldilocks Zone, our elusive 'just right' settings were primarily temperature related.

Zone 1 - The Wood Burning Stove
The fall colors surround us.
We were taking a scenic route home from town a few days ago because the fall colors are absolutely gorgeous right now. There is a greater variety of colors than we have in the mid-west and the hillsides provide a much more dramatic canvas than the flat-lands of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Anyway, on the way home, we passed a house with firewood for sale out front. We stopped to write down the number and called when we got home. It was a good price so we went out to pick up a load later that day. That's when we found out that they had cut it to a length that almost too long for our stove. When we got home, we tried a few pieces and had to put them in at an angle to fit. So we called him back and asked for a couple of custom loads cut to 16 inches instead. These shorter lengths we found to be Just Right!

I started thinking about how we use the wide variety of wood choices we now have. We have learned that the lumber ends are great for quickly heating up the room as they burn hotter than the firewood. So, if we come home to a cold house because it was 80 degrees out when we left but quickly dropped to below 60 when the sun went down, then we start the fire out with lumber. Or, if we come home or wake up and the fire is almost out, throwing lumber on the remaining embers is much more likely to bring the fire back to life than adding regular firewood.

Once the fire is going nicely, there is little need to add lumber, but that may change as the temperatures continue to drop as winter approaches. But, we still have other options as to the size of firewood logs we add to the fire. For a warm, comfy fire with great ambiance, I use several pieces that have been split smaller or that are from limbs that were only a couple inches in diameter and did not need split. However, when banking the stove for the night, one big log is best, one that fills the wood stove and will slowly burn/smolder through the night.All of these options assure that for each need, we have fire wood that is Just Right!

Zone 2 - Shower Version 3.0
Yes!!! we now have hot water for the shower, and miracle of miracles it comes out of the shower head without any pumping of handles! You may recall in a previous post, quite some time ago, where I discussed our upgrade to shower 2.0. At that time we upgraded from one of us holding a sprinkling can over the shower enclosure for the other, to an awesome hand pumped system Alan invented using a backpack style garden sprayer. More recently I discussed how we were adding water we had warmed on the stove to the shower tank for a warmer shower as Fall weather arrived. This has now been replaced by shower 3.0. Well, not actually replaced, it has joined shower 2.0 so we can now choose between the two or use a combination to save on water usage because the newest upgrade does pump out more water.

This set up is even more elaborate than the tank sprayer Alan painstakingly attached to the tub enclosure. The parts include an inline water heater that operates on propane, a water pump that operates on 12V, a switch that has been wired into the house's 12V solar system, a bottle of water and several hoses in various colors. The orange hose takes water from the holding container up to the pump. The green hose then carries the water from the pump up to the water heater where it is heated 'on the fly' then travels through white hose to the sprayer which has an valve. The new system allows you to control both the pressure and the temperature, assuring each shower is Just Right!

Zone 3 - Pressure Canning
The jars are in the canner
With no freezer it is challenging to keep meat on hand for meal planning unless we want to (1)`go to the store every few days, (2) base all our meals on Spam, canned tuna and Vienna sausages or (3) shoot whatever critter wanders past our deck around dinner time. None of these are optimal solutions, so I have settled on a fourth option - pressure canning. For some time now, I have been researching what foods can and can't be canned, with the goal being to can both meats and ready made meals such as soups and stews. As I get more practice and a wider repertoire I may devote an entire post to this subject. But for now, an introduction to it fits nicely with this weeks topic. The  Goldilocks Zone for pressure canning involves the pressure setting which needs to stay above a designated pressure for a specified amount of time. For meats, this is generally 10 pounds of pressure for 75 to 90 minutes depending on the size of jars you are canning. So, once the canner reaches the proper pressure, it is then a matter of tweaking the setting of the range top burner to keep the pressure from dropping too low as well as climbing too high (Big Badda-Boom).

Steam coming from the vent indicated
air is being purged from the canner
Once my new propane stove was set up, I wanted to try my hand at canning. I already had everything I needed except the actual item I wanted to can. I decided to start with ground beef. I purchased two large packages (about 10 pounds) and browned it all when I brought it home. It was getting late and there was room in my little fridge, so I decided to wait until morning to start the actually canning, as I knew it was a long process even when you know what you are doing. So the next morning I heated up beef broth, added my cooked ground beef to it, heated my jars and lids, set up the pressure canner with the specified amount of water and then started the jar filling process. At first it felt like I needed six hands to get everything completed in the manner that is required - keeping everything hot and sanitary while filling the jars. After a bit of practice, I could see this would be a process that would become easier and easier as you developed techniques - similar to how my first few time of doing laundry off-grid got easier as I worked out the 'kinks'.

After 10 minutes of purging, add the pressure regulator
and the pressure rises to the Goldilocks Zone.
I canned my ground beef in pint and half-pint jars as those two sizes seemed like the appropriate amount for meals for Alan and myself. Later that day we stopped at a grocery store and they had pork tenderloins for $1.99 a pound. I told Alan I wished our new grill was built because I could then buy one, grill it off for flavor and then can it. He replied that he would be building the grill the next morning, so I happily bought an 8 pound tenderloin and squeezed it into my refrigerator that night and went to sleep dreaming of jars of BBQ pork. The next day the tenderloin grilled off beautifully so I decided to thinly slice as much of it as possible and can it in BBQ sauce to use for sandwiches. Then ends, which were difficult to slice thinly, were chopped  and this was packed in jars and covered with chicken broth to be used in soups and casseroles.
Ground beef (left), pork (center)
and BBQ pork (right)

Again everything canned well and I was anxious to try some of my creations. So, the following day I opened the sliced BBQ pork and heated it for sandwiches. The only problem I discovered was that due to the 75 minutes of pressure cooking, my beautiful thin slices had turned into pulled pork. Despite that, Alan and I both agreed it was delicious. What's getting canned next? Ham was on sale and it is sitting in my fridge for tomorrow's project. Having meat available for meals whenever we need it is Just Right!

Zone 4 - Our Solar System
As the sun drops lower and lower in the autumn sky, more and more shadows are falling on our solar panels from tall trees to the south of our deck. When we first completed our solar panel array in late summer, I had reported our charge controller had readings of over 6 amps coming in on a clear, sunny afternoon. As the sun's path dips lower and lower these past few weeks, we have not seen any readings higher than three amps. We have been planning to have several trees taken down to open up our southern exposure, but had not found anyone with experience to take them down yet. (Remember what happened when Alan took down a tree when we put up our first panels?)

So, now that the sun has dropped out of our solar panel Goldilocks Zone and our incoming power was too low, we had to tweak the system a bit. Our solar panels rest on the deck and the top edges lean against the house so that the face the sky at an angle. The panels also come with supporting legs as they are designed to be free standing, we just found it more convenient to brace them against the house. Yesterday, we pulled the tops of the panels forward, away from the house and deployed the support legs so that the panels now stand more upright which means their 'faces' are directed to a lower point in the sky (remember the problem is the sun is not going as high in the sky now). This has got us back into the Goldilocks Zone. Even though the trees are still between the panels and the sun through part of this lower path across the sky, we were still able to get a reading of 6.0 amps coming in yesterday afternoon. So, we now have a 'summer' and 'winter' setting for our solar panels, each Just Right for the season.

And, even more good news. One of our neighbors is selling their trees to a logging company, and the owner of the tree company saw us outside today and stopped to asked if we would be interested in selling any trees on our property. We asked if it would be worth his time to take down the six trees that we had decided needed to be removed to improve our solar system. He first said he would just take them down and leave them laying there for $100 to cover his gas and time as they were not extremely large trees and would not net much lumber (and they are oaks, not walnut which pays a premium around here). He then asked about trees behind the house and I explained that we actually owned the property across the road, not behind the house and we were still waiting for the survey results to make sure exactly where our property lines were. At that point he asked how far to the south we owned, he probably wanted to make sure we were not asking him to take down our neighbor's trees that were blocking sun from our solar panels, so we showed him the pink ribbon the surveyors had placed some distance away to mark that property line. At that point, the logger said that instead of charging us to take down the 6 trees, he would do it for the lumber out of the three largest ones. This revised price was Just Right!

Our new southern exposure is
 'just right'.
We had been heading to town to go to the post office and lunch at a great Mexican restaurant we have found, but we took the time to first mark the trees. It is a good thing we did, because when we returned home all six trees were already down. Not only does it give us great exposure for the solar panels, but we also have some open sky for stargazing, which we love to do. And, being the southern sky, it is just in time for me to enjoy my favorite constellation - Orion, who is just now starting to make his seasonal appearance. Oh, and one more plus - more firewood!

Zone 5 - Outdoor Temperatures
Alan and I agree that fall is our favorite season. And with all the pleasure we have sitting out on the deck, we splurged on an item that helps make those fall evenings Just Right when the air starts feeling just a bit too cool. It is an outdoor fireplace that we have placed on the northwest corner of the deck. We chose this location for two reasons. One, when we sit in our chairs, facing the fire, we are also facing the wooded hillside behind our house, We saw four deer strolling by the other day. By the way, I have named the outdoor fireplace 'The Tardis', fans of Dr. Who will understand

Oh, and reason number two for the location of the outdoor fireplace, we have not yet repaired the rotting deck, and it is getting worse. And, to quote Goldilocks, most of the deck wood is "too soft", just ask Alan: