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:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Wait, That's Not Quite Right....

As I am sitting here working on this blog post, the words on my screen keep coming in and going out of focus. Hey wait, that's not quite right, but if I raise my head a bit the focus is perfect. Many of you reading this who are 'of a certain age' have probably deduced from that sentence that I am adjusting to my new bifocals. Yes, after a couple years of repeatedly stating 'I am going to need bifocals soon' I finally admitted that 'soon' was actually a year or so ago. My optometrist agreed, he said it was a fairly strong prescription for first time bifocals - aka 'Why did you wait so long?' I was told the adjustment period could be about three weeks and I am on day one, so I will assume I will like them better in a few days.

On the way to the eye doctor yesterday, we decided to leave a bit early so that we could have breakfast out on the way there.The local village was having an annual fall festival this weekend that included a parade at 9 AM that morning. We realized we would be arriving in town at just about that time, so we made a slight detour to enjoy the parade. Now we are used to the annual 'Corn Fest' parade in our home town up north which passes right in front of our house and consists of dozens upon dozens of emergency vehicles with lights  and sirens blaring, followed by several bands and quite a few well decorated floats created by various organizations and business. All told, the Corn Fest parade in Wisconsin lasts well over an hour.

Maybe this local politician thought a float in
the parade literally had to be able to float!
The parade we experienced Saturday was just a bit different. Yes it started with emergency vehicles (one police car, one ambulance and one firetruck). There were no bands, but I have included a picture of one of the two 'floats' that were in the parade (another chance to say wait, that's not quite right). This parade would have lasted about 5 minutes, but the fact that the lead car had to stop at the railroad tracks for a train that was coming through did double the time the parade took to do the loop around the square. Plus those throwing candy from the vehicles and floats continued to toss their goodies the entire time they were stopped at the train crossing, so much so, that the spectators actually got tired of picking up all the treats off the street. I actually heard some mothers haranguing their children to go pick up more candy that was just lying there.

Speaking of goodies found on the ground, we had a slight dilemma we had so solve recently. Our dog, Maycee, has been enjoying exploring our property around the house. She hasn't strayed beyond the yard but she has developed a penchant for finding animal carcasses. We'd realize she had wandered away from where we were working and we would see her laying in the yard intent on 'something'. I would walk over to her and as I got closer there would be a telltale crunching sound and I would discover she has yet-again found a bone. This would not be so bad, except the bones tend to be an entire skull of a small animal or an oft returning foreleg and paw with fur still attached, that one seemed to be a particular favorite.

Sometimes, when we called her to come inside, she would come trotting over to the deck stairs with the treasures in her mouth. We would command her to 'drop' them whenever she is caught red-handed and we would toss them as far as we could towards the woods (thank goodness for antibacterial hand wipes!). This process was being repeated multiple times daily so we decided we needed to come up with a solution to get her to stop finding and chewing on animal carcasses, so we made a trip to the pet store and got her a ... package bone. Wait, that's not quite right. Yes it seemed ironic to replace her 'bad bones' with a 'good bone' but I am sure she understands the difference !?!

Alan heating water for our French press
'on' our new stove. (The stove does have burner grates,
they were in the process of being cleaned .)
So, besides a trip to the eye doctor, what else has transpired this week?  The first thing that pops into my head is that I have a full sized stove and the butane 'omelette station' single burner I had been using the past few months has been packed away with the many other items that have been upgraded and are now relegated to 'preparedness status' should they be needed at a future date.The morning after we brought the stove home, Alan said 'I am making coffee on the new stove', I knew it was not connected to a propane tank yet so I glanced over, saw his version of making coffee on the stove and said 'Umm, Hon, that's not quite right." He had placed our single burner on the stove top and was making coffee with it, so technically it was being made 'on' the new stove top.

Our Sawyer Bucket Water Filter System
The well water is dumped in the square
bucket, gravity feeds through the filter.
We also got a new water filter this week. You may recall in one of my first posts, I talked about our Berkey water filter we were waiting to use until we really needed it. Due to it's cost, and the fact that once you start using a filter, the cartridges have a 6 month life, we planned on using just one filter at a time rather than the three filters in tandem which is the way it is designed to be used. A couple weeks ago, we attended a meeting of 'like minded folks' who strive to live self-reliantly and we learned of a new water filter that is now available. This Sawyer Water Filter will filter one million gallons of water, has an unlimited life-span and costs only $50. When I first heard about this filter I thought 'wait, that's not quite right' knowing the water filter we bought just a few months ago was 'top of the line' yet it cost much more than this new filter and was much more limited in how much it could filter (10,000 gallons or 6 months whichever occurs first). So apparently, just like all the tech gear in our life, our off-grid gear is also quickly outdated by newer, better, cheaper versions.

Wait, that's not quite right, because just yesterday I picked up a very old school appliance for our new life. I found a treadle sewing machine on Craig's List. When we first started contemplating our mid-life change (some may call it crisis) I knew I eventually wanted to get a treadle machine but figured it would be way down on the list because new treadle machines in cabinets are expensive and the old ones are hard to find in working order, most have been turned into plant stands sans the actual sewing machine or even the hardware to hold the machine in place. My next decision is do I tinker with the old machine that is in the cabinet, it seems mechanically sound and just needs a good cleaning of all the mechanical parts and a new belt, or do I buy a new treadle machine, which are reasonable in price with more features than the original ones, and install it into the old cabinet. New treadle machines without a cabinet or treadle are about $300, but the new cabinets with the actual treadle mechanism (foot peddle) are about $1300. I got the complete antiques version for $75, so even if I upgrade to a new machine in the old cabinet it is quite a savings over a new cabinet, plus it is a nice ambiance.

Oh, back to the new water filter, sorry I was distracted by my new toy. With this new unlimited filter we can now filter our well water for all purposes. Yes, I drank water from our well this week and there were no side effects. Well, maybe my blurry vision isn't the new no-line bifocals after all! We are weaning ourselves onto the well water, still bringing in drinking water from the reverse-osmosis dispenser a few miles away, but using the well water for cooking etc. Alan said he would now designate some of our previously non-potable water bottles as those for filtered water vs. those with non-filtered water which we use for flushing the toilet (yes, had to go back to that for a couple of days when the rain water tank finally ran dry). The next morning I went to grab a bottle of the newly filtered water and I saw some bottles were marked with an 'F'. Wait, that's not quite right I am not sure if 'F' stands for 'filtered' or 'flushing'. I am fairly certain it would mean those bottles have filtered water, but since I have previously discussed how Alan and I interpret things differently, you will understand my hesitation. In this case, we were on the same track and the 'F' bottles do contain filtered water.

Our hot (well OK -warm)
water heater.
There was one other water improvement this week. With the weather turning colder, cold water showers are no longer as refreshing as they were when it was 105 degrees outside. Rather than heating up water on the stove, we wanted to come up with a way to use passive solar power for warming water for showers. We painted some of our gallon water containers black and placed them in our small greenhouse we had purchased. Our original plan for the greenhouse was to use it as a food dehydrator, which we still plan to try, but for now it has been re-purposed yet again to be a hot water heater, well to be more accurate, a warm water heater. We place gallons of water inside and in a few hours the water was up to 97 degrees on a 60 degree day. One afternoon, I found myself asking Alan if there was any 'black water' available for a shower. Now, if you are at all familiar with camping terms in the RV world and you heard me asking for 'black water' for a shower you would be thinking 'Wait, that's not quite right'.

This has been a week of finding great deals. Besides the stove and the sewing machine, we also picked up a grill we having been planning to get. It has dual compartments, one is a gas grill and the other is for charcoal as well as a side burner and a smoker, so it has a lot of versatility. We were planning to buy one of these at Sam's Club this summer, but before we had funds available, they were sold out. We then saw that a farm store a few miles away had very nice ones, but they were rather expensive.Several weeks ago when we were there we saw they were on clearance from $399 down to about $249 so we decided we would pick one up after we received some payments from our most recent invoices to clients. This week, with funds replenished, we returned only to find that all the boxes containing the grills were gone. We thought we had missed out, yet again, but we asked about them and discovered they had just been packed away to make room in the store for all the winter and Christmas stock that was coming in. There were still several available and they had been discounted once more and were down to $199 - half price - Yipee!

We drove around to the back of the store and two employees loaded it onto Truck using a forklift. Great, yet another heavy box we would have to open and haul the contents up to the deck piece by piece before assembling it. I am now a bit worried because besides the grill that is waiting to be assembled, we still have some of our 'assembly required' furniture that had to be carried into the house piece by piece waiting to be built as well. If we are not careful when following the various instructions we may end up saying wait, that's not quite right as we gaze at our newly assembled bedroom cabinet with built in smoker!