Monday, May 11, 2015

If You Do What You Love, You'll Never Work A Day In Your Life

Reggie, our wood burner , is a real multi-tasker
 with his chore list. Here you can see him 
(1) heating the house, (2) humidifying the air, 
(3) heating rocks to warm our worms, 
(4) raising two loaves of sourdough bread and
(5) keeping our seed beds warm for germination.
Several people have asked how we manage both our homesteading work and our real work - that which provides our income. We have also been asked how our day-to-day life has change over the last 3 years, that is, how things have evolved since we first moved to the property three years ago. Yes, it has been three years.

Back in May 2012, Alan wrote a guest post describing a typical day on the property. It was fun to read back through that and reminisce about the good old days when we first jumped off the grid.

But, for those who are curious, this post will give you an idea of what a typical day is like now.

The first thing I realized when thinking about how to start this entry is that there really isn't a typical day. There are however daily chores, semi-weekly chores, weekly chores, monthly chores, etc. and all of these can vary from season to season. So, I think the best way to paint a picture of our current off-grid-life activities is to use a list of various chores that fill our days. I will be focusing on the off-grid centric chores - those that pertain only to this lifestyle, and also those common daily chores that we now do in a different manner since we have unplugged from 'normal' society.

Daily Chores
Water - Our water now comes totally from our rain catchment system. If you have been following our adventure from the start, you may recall that we started by filling water jugs at a car wash half an hour away. Then we learned of a spring 20 minutes away, so we started driving there to fill an 275 gallon IBC tank we kept in the back of our large pick-up. We have not made that trip now in almost two years. We also used to manually pull water out of our well by lowering a special bucket (torpedo bucket) down the narrow well pipe to the water 120 feet below. We have not done this in over 1 1/2 years. Both of these options are still available to us if we find ourselves in a drought that depletes our rain water supplies.

Using the Sawyer Filter for our
potable water supply.
We currently collect water off three sections of our roof. A tank outside the utility room, a tank outside the bathroom and a tank under the deck on the north side of the house that is only used for the North garden. Each of these tanks holds about 275 gallons, and we also have one additional reserve tank behind the house that is not connected into the collection system. When our catchment tanks are full and there is more rain in the forecast, we transfer water into this fourth tank from the utility room IBC, it acts as an extra holding tank to use during dry periods. We have also installed a 55 gallon holding tank inside the house to be used whenever the water lines freeze in the winter.

Our water system for the kitchen, which is behind this wall.
Our daily water chore is the filtering of our collected water to maintain our potable supply. We chlorinate the collection tanks and use a whole-house coarse type filter as we pump water from the tank outside the utility room, but for potable (safe drinking) water we run water through our Sawyer water filter. In the past we stored our potable water in marked 2 1/2 gallon bottles in the utility room that we would then use for cooking, washing dishes and drinking. This winter we installed a small water system for the kitchen. We now put the potable water into a 15 gallon holding tank that is connected to a pump and a water heater. This system now pumps potable water (both hot and cold!) to the kitchen sink. No more carrying all our water into the kitchen and heating it on the stove to wash dishes. The hot and cold water comes right out of the spigots - image that!

The tubs in the sink basins cut down
on the volume of water we use.
Washing Dishes - I wasn't going to include this daily chore in the off-grid list now that we have hot and cold running water in the kitchen, but there are still off-griddy elements to washing the dishes. We still place plastic tubs inside the sink basins. These tubs are a couple of inches narrower than the sink basins in both directions and thus we need less water to fill them compared to filling the sink itself. We also make sure we don't just keep the water running to rinse off dishes. One of the basins holds a tub of hot soapy water and the other holds a tub that starts out empty. We place the washed dishes in the empty tub. Once there are a few dishes waiting to be rinsed we turn on the water, rinse the dishes and collect the rinse water in the tub. As the rinse water accumulates we can use it on subsequent dishes without running more water out of the kitchen tank.

The thought we put into conserving our water supply comes as second nature to us now, in fact when I am back on-grid I find it now feels very decadent to keep the water running while brushing my teeth. We recently read an article about water usage that stated the average person uses 60 gallons per day for all their water needs (drinking, cooking, washing, laundry, toilet, shower etc.). So we added up our water usage for a month and divided by 30 days, and came up with 16 gallons per day!

Power- Our solar system really doesn't have any daily maintenance requirements, however we do find ourselves monitoring our power supply on a daily basis - seeing if the batteries are fully charged, how much power we are currently using, etc. On sunny days, the batteries are usually fully charged before noon and the system goes into float mode - basically topping off the batteries and throwing away a lot of power. At that point we try to work on projects that will use up some of that excess power. I will run my dehydrator, which is a power hog and only gets used on sunny days, we will fully charge computers, phones, rechargeable batteries etc. and also work on projects requiring power tools.

A few months ago we upgraded our charge controller with the addition of a unit called the 'Whiz-Bang Junior'. The charge controller is a black box that is connected into our system between the solar panels and the batteries, it's job is basically to regulate the amount of power the solar panels are dumping into the batteries. The Whiz-Bang Junior provides more options to control and fine tune the feeding of the batteries. Alan has an interface on his phone that connects via the Internet into the charge controller, so even when we are not at home we can check on how the batteries are charging.

Work Work - We tend to refer to our professional jobs as 'work-work', as in "Do you have any work-work you need to get done today?" Both Alan and I have computer related jobs that we work from home. On a daily basis we have the normal day to day business correspondence along with writing computer code for whatever project(s) we are currently working on. Sometimes this work can take up our entire day except for what we absolutely have to get done on the property, while at other times we may be in between projects and just check our email several times throughout the day to make sure nothing has popped up that needs to be handled. The unpredictability of our work-work schedules leads us to strive to keep everything else in our life as flexible as possible. That way, if it ends up one of us needs to put 12-18 hour days in on a coding project we can do so without feeling like the rest of our world is falling apart.

Seasonal Daily Chores - From October through March carrying in fire wood is a daily chore. Our deck stretches the length of our house and is about 5 feet off the ground. We stack our supply of  firewood under the edge of the deck. Our daily routine is that Alan will go down to the stacked wood and  place the supply for the day up on the deck. I will then carry it into the house and stack it by Reggie, the wood burning stove. Another daily chore during this time period is sweeping up around our indoor wood stack and around the wood burner.

I start many of our garden plants indoors and until
it is warm enough for them to go outside they
sunbathe in our one south-facing window.
Mid-February to mid-April is seedling time, step one in the garden preps. In January I start looking through seed catalogs and planning our garden. The first part of  February I start making a list of all the seeds we have saved from last year and new varieties we have purchased. Then I determine which seeds need to be started indoors so that they are ready to go into ground as healthy young plants after the last frost. Once various seeds are started indoors, the daily chores begin of watering, moving them around so they all get some sun throughout the day, and transplanting them to larger containers as they grow.

I am expanding my gardens yet again this year and I have started way more seeds than in past years, it has been a busy daily process of trying to keep everyone happy, especially when it is too cold, too rainy or too windy to set the baby plants out to get more sun. We only have one south facing window in the house so I crowd all the flats around my kitchen window when I can't put them outside. All the gardening books state that seeds and young plants need to be started under grow-lights, but that is not an option when living off-grid. Therefore, I tend to move my flats around a lot on a daily basis - either shuttling them all outside if it is warm and calm enough and then bringing them all back in at night, or finding the sunniest places in the house and giving them all a turn to bask in the sun coming through the windows.

From April through September the daily garden chores move outside. Watering is almost a daily occurrence, except for days when we get rain. The raised beds help cut down on the amount of weeding that needs done. Most days also include some other type of puttering around in the garden - building supports, staking tomatoes, checking for pests, and then from June through October harvesting whatever is ready.

Semi-Weekly & Weekly Chores
You can see samples of my sourdough bread in the upper left.
This array of sourdough goodies was in preparation for a talk
I gave on sourdough.
Baking Bread- Sourdough bread has now become a staple at our house. The recipe I use makes two loaves and this will last us 5 or 6 days. In the winter the bread will keep in the bread box for this long as sourdough keeps longer than yeast breads. But, as the weather has started to get warmer, I keep the second loaf in the fridge until we are ready for it. We often have sourdough toast for breakfast using a stove top toaster. And I have learned that if I ask Alan what he would like for lunch the answer will most likely be grilled cheese on sourdough.

Feeding Hooch- While doing some research on sourdough for a talk I was giving, I discovered that many people name their sourdough starter. I then named mine Hooch because that is what the liquid is called that forms on top of the sourdough starter in between uses. The longer the sourdough sits between feedings the more hooch is generated. And yes, the hooch is basically alcohol, but not drinkable. Some people pour the hooch off, but it is perfectly safe to stir the hooch back in at the next feeding, I think it helps add 'tang' to the sourdough products. I feed my sourdough every time I use it, and since I make multiple sourdough items each week Hooch gets fed often enough through use. If, however, you do not use you sourdough on a weekly basis, you still need to feed it regularly as it is a living entity. Hooch's meal consists of equal parts of water and flour. These measurements should be by weight but I am not a stickler for accuracy. Since water weighs more than flour by volume, I simply add a bit more flour than I do water and Hooch has been perfectly happy with this diet for about three years now.

Laundry- Depending on our current water supply, I will do between 1 to 3 loads of laundry per week. Laundry is actually one of the more time and energy consuming chores, no just dumping a load in the washer and walking away. Here are the steps to complete a load of laundry:
1. Grate part of a bar of Fels Naptha into the laundry and add some Borax.
2. Use the hose in the utility room to add about 3-4 gallons of water to the tub.
3. Let water sit in the tub to dissolve the soap, then add clothes. (A load consists of 5-6 shirts or the equivalent in volume)
4. Use the washing plunger to agitate the clothes to make sure they are all thoroughly wet and then let soak for an hour or so. 'Or so' can be up to a day or two if I forget about them.
5. Use the washing plunger in earnest for about 150-200 strokes depending on how energetic I am feeling.
6. Remove clothes to a 5 gallon bucket and then run them all through the hand crank wringer that is attached to the utility tub.
7. Use the utility tub hose to rinse off the wrung out clothes while dropping them back into the 5 gallon bucket.
8. Run the rinsed clothes back through the hand crank wringer.
9. Hang the clothes out to dry.
10. Bring in the dry clothes and enjoy how good they smell.

Feeding the Worms - The worm farm survived the winter and the population is once again increasing. The worms are our composters and they produce worm juice to fertilize our gardens. I have two 'scrap buckets' (5 quart plastic ice cream pails) on our kitchen counter, one for the worms and one for the crows. Everything suitable for the worms goes into their bucket, everything else goes into the 'crow bucket'. Every few days I take the worm bucket down to their farm, dig a hole in their dirt and dump in the bucket contents for them to chow down on. On a side note, the crow bucket contains kitchen scraps that are not good for the worms such as bones and old bread. This bucket is dumped out in a designated area of the yard where the crows congregate during the day and raccoons and armadillo wander through at night.

Monthly Chores
Our  eight 6V golf cart batteries. Four series banks
of two batteries each connected in parallel.
(Each 2 batteries in series creates 12V and then these 4 pairs
are connected in parallel for storing our power.)
Battery Maintenance- The storage batteries in our solar system need to have their water levels checked regularly and the water levels need to be 'topped off' at this time. Our batteries are in a Rubbermaid storage cabinet in our utility room. We have 8 golf cart batteries that are lined up on two shelves in the cabinet. This used to be a two person job involving funnels, rubber tubing, a flashlight, dental mirror and distilled water. It was quite awkward checking the vent caps on each battery, especially on the upper level of batteries

However, Alan had a great idea on improving the process that has now simplified it to a one-person job by using a hand-pumped sprayer with a long modified nozzle for adding the water to the batteries.

Sanitize the Water Storage Tanks- This chore isn't exactly monthly, but is more dependent on when we have rainfall. Whenever we get new water in our collection tanks we treat them with chlorine. The tanks sometimes get treated in between rainfalls as well if there has been a long dry spell since the last rain. We do NOT use bleach.

Canning & Vaccu-canning - Again, these chores are not exactly monthly but are dependent on when there are sales on meats or dry goods, when we get low on some of our favorite canned items, and when we have enough produce for a batch of canning. I would say that on average I can once or twice a month and vaccu-can every couple of months.

Our home built Vacuu-Canner!
I know I have talked about my canning before, but I can't recall if I shared how we vaccu-can other food items. Vaccu-canning is a way to preserve our dry goods for a longer shelf life. This is especially helpful in the summer since no air-conditioning and a humid climate can cause little critters to appear in flour, etc. We saw a vaccu-canner at a self-reliance expo and knew we wanted one but we didn't have spare cash for the $420 price tag. So, Alan did some research and built one for us. Basically he converted a pressure canner to be the vessel to hold the jars to be vacuum sealed. By modifying the lid, a vacuum pump can be attached to suck the air out of the canner and thus the jars of dry goods are vacuum sealed.

Seasonal Chores
Applying Tick Repellent- By now, anyone who reads this blog knows my aversion to ticks as well as the abundance of them on our property. The first summer, we used a granular product that is spread over the ground and this worked quite well. However, since then, with our more abundant water supply and pressurized outdoor hoses, we have switched to applying a permethrin solution that is diluted and dispersed through a sprayer on a hose. We have hoses at both the north and south end of the house that utilize our water tanks and 12 volt pumps powered by the solar system. With these two hoses we can cover all the gardens and 'yard' with the tick repellent and one application in the spring lasts the entire season.

Preparing the Garden for Winter- Our growing season ends in either late October or early November with the first frost. After that, I remove all the plants from raised beds and container gardens. This year I also plan on keeping up with fall leaf removal from around the raised beds. I did not do that this year and has a lot of piles of wet, deteriorating leaves in the rows between the beds. I am also planning to dose the garden areas with worm juice throughout the winter to replenish the depleted soil.

We can adjust the angle of our solar panels seasonally.
Adjusting the Solar Panels- In summer and fall we need to adjust the angle of the solar panel to better line up with the sun. For the Harbor Freight panels on the deck, Alan screwed decking screws part way into the deck to act as 'stoppers' to hold the panels at the correct angle. For the Grape Solar panels, the frame Alan built to hold them is attached to the deck rail and is hinged so that the angle of the frame can be changed by adjusting the position of the concrete blocks that the frame rests on.

Dehydrating- This activity is not necessarily seasonal, but is again dependent on when I have abundant supplies of produce. I have ideas for a solar dehydrator that we hope can get built this summer. Until then, whenever I have stuff to dehydrate, I start off by using my oven with just the heat from the pilot light as a dehydrator, and then finish off the batch with 2 to 3 hours in my electric dehydrator. On sunny days, I can run this dehydrator off the solar system and still have excess power going into the batteries. As Alan claims to be chlorophyll intolerant, he does not eat a lot of the garden produce 'as is'. However he will eat the vegetables I add to soups and stews, as long as they are not overly-abundant. I have also started making various vegetable powders by dehydrating them and then running them through my mini food processor. This year, after I harvest my tomatoes, I want to experiment with making tomato soup from my tomato powder.

Well, that is all the basic off-grid chores I can think of for now. I am sure there are some I missed as well as new chores just around the corner.