As Off-Grid As The Farm Is Ever Likely To Be

Two years ago, we had an unintended test of the farm’s solar system. While drilling post holes for the fence around our garden, I put the tractor’s auger right through the main power lines to the house. It also coincided with one of the coldest days of that winter. The house is all solar, and if the power goes out we have a 48 volt battery back up system to carry us through just as one might use a gas powered generator (We also have one of those). The batteries kick in automatically when the grid goes down. About 2/3’ds of the house is hooked up to it including the well pump (so we don’t lose access to water) and the main turbine on the furnace. During that fiasco, it was also cloudy for a good three days, which is kind of unusual here. Given that the system is solar, that doesn’t bode well for recharging the batteries. As a result, I spent the next two days rationing battery juice and working to make sure we didn’t get into a situation where we could have had frozen pipes.

The lesson learned was that while in sunny conditions, the batteries can carry the day, but it is quite a burden to put on them. For instance, even if the battery bank is fully charged, it can’t power the turbine all night because the charge, of course, is finite. Everything does well during the day and batteries do well for everything else at night, but we discovered a flaw in the system. Heat.

When we still lived in back in Michigan, and also when I lived up in the high country here in Colorado, we heated exclusively with wood. Times have changed, regulations have become more stringent, and our house didn’t have any venting available to hook up any kind of wood stove. Also, because physically I can’t spend all summer going up into the mountains to cut firewood and still expect to be able to farm, we had to figure out some of the pieces. The bottom line though is that we decided that in some fashion, we needed a more self-sufficient way to heat that didn’t involve propane (not to mention the potential for propane to skyrocket in price) and mechanical parts.

I won’t go into the details of trying to get the stove installed using the contractor we signed up with. It was awful ….. just awful. However, once the county got the permits approved and then the stove got installed and the stove got inspected and signed off on, the ridiculous story of installation came to a close. It is a great unit, it was installed well, and it is ours……. all ours.

The biggest issue in the set up was that we decided to have it placed in the basement. As the basement is a big concrete box, we didn’t have to mess around with heat resistant shields and flooring. We just didn’t want the stove pipe to stay in the house so as to reduce fire danger. This meant we had to have a core driller come out and put a big hole in our foundation so the chimney could go up the side of the house outside. It turned out great. Watching the hole get drilled was really fun and nail biting at the same time. If the installation didn’t work, we could have ended up with a big hole in our basement.

The stove itself is a very highly rated Blaze King Princess model. It is all EPA approved so even when the Front Range issues burning restrictions because of air quality, we don’t have to stop using it. In fact, it burns so clean that even with a raging fire in it, there is almost no smoke visible coming out of the stack. We discovered in short order that it can have you removing clothing rather quickly.

So this latest installation makes the farm about as off the grid as she is going to get. Sure, most of the posts about building the place had to do with fencing, barns, garden beds and corrals, but this one filled in a gap. Other than the fact that the solar system is still somewhat tied to the electric utility, we are not dependent upon it and virtually everything else here is self-contained. We have solar electricity, septic instead of a public sewer line, well water and water catchment, a propane tank instead of natural gas lines, gardens for growing food, animals for the same, and multiple ways to preserve our food as well. With our freeze dryer, my goal for as long as it takes is to have about 2 years of just freeze dried meals available. Not only is this easy in a pinch while we are working outside, it makes putting together meals for Zina when she is in the city, a snap.

We could, if we really wanted to get all purist about it all, build a root cellar and a composting toilet and install a solar hot water system; but I think that given how the majority of this country is dependent on grocery stores, for profit utilities and this glorious just in time delivery system that I have been squawking about ever since the world thought out-sourcing was a great idea, we are doing pretty well. We have another wood stove in one of our barns. I have downloaded some plans on how to turn that into a smokehouse. This will give us yet another way to preserve food – not to mention how good smoked meats taste! Should be fun!

We are going into a pretty cold few days next week. So far, the furnace hasn’t even turned on with this thing burning. We still have to tweak things a bit to get the heat to rise upstairs a bit more efficiently, but that is the fun of new projects like this. Just a short while ago, it was just another vision like all the other visions we have had here. Now here it is. As far as we are. concerned, living off-grid is the only way to fly..

2 comments on “As Off-Grid As The Farm Is Ever Likely To Be

  1. Michael Prochoda says:

    Awesome Jon! I’ve found my Tulikivi Finnish wood-burning stove in Westcliffe to be awesome as well. It takes about 8-10 quartered logs to get the house nice and toasty and then the stove radiates the accumulated heat for the rest of the night and half of the next day. The electric heaters in my house don’t have to work for about 24 hours after firing the stove up just once. When I arrive at Westcliffe in the winter, I usually only have to fire up the stove right when I get there, and then I use the electric heat to maintain the heat thereafter. Although I could use the stove full-time if needed, the problem is that it actually gets TOO toasty using the stove for more than 1-2 hours per day.

    I’m glad to see your homestead being essentially completely off the grid at this point. And with 2 years of food in reserve (as well as all the animals and more seed and land than needed to sustain) you should be set for life by this point!

    Hawaii has been a real eye-opener so far. Things grow TOO WELL here! I’ve been working hard to Dutch hoe the weeds and try to control the ants, termites, and creepy crawlies with diatomaceous earth, coffee grounds, and taping the bottoms of our trees. It’s working pretty well, but is an ongoing process. We have overproducing fruit trees (we’ve been giving buckets of limons away to neighbors as well as squeezing and freezing the juice) and Molokai has an amazing small-farm infrastructure. They have a “mobile market” which is essentially an online farmers market where you order your produce online, and then they hand it all to you in a bag out of the back of a van. All of it is locally grown by small organic farmers. We also have an awesome Saturday morning farmers market with amazing produce and fruit in the nearest town. We get our daily produce from Kumu farms which is a papaya farm just down the street. One of the owners also grows varied organic produce on a few acres and it’s amazing to have fresh basil, broccoli, kale, chard, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, etc. which were in the ground only a few hours before. I’m also learning all about preparing and enjoying some exotic new green things and fruit – Jaboticaba, Opo squash, Taro leaves, Sapote, Bitter Melon, Breadfruit, Longan, Dragon fruit, Passion fruit, etc. We bought a Vitamix just before we moved which is being used daily to make the most incredible smoothies. The acre around our home is fenced (we have feral pigs and Axis deer here) and besides ornamental shrubs and trees, we have tangerines, limons, figs, avocados, mangoes, passion fruit, breadfruit, and dragon fruit trees inside the fence. Next week, Nancy and I are going to plant a raised bed to start growing our own vegetables. Our lot is 6 acres and the only thing we hear is the surf, chickens, and roosters (the neighbor has a noisy chicken flock). My cycling has taken a bit of a back seat recently due to all of the work around the new home, although once the organizing and final storage of the contents of our move is in order, I should have more free time. I lucked out on the Colorado house sale. Got $20k more than asking for the Estes Park home and made about $200k more overall than I would have expected a year ago. Eliot is very happy for me since once I paid the down payment on the Hawaii home and paid off the Westcliffe place, I still had considerably more than either he or I were expecting for my retirement. So I should be good to go in the financial planning dept. Although things are more expensive here, consolidating my expenses with Nancy has meant that I’m actually needing much less than I was expecting to need in retirement. So you and Eliot have done well for me!

    Wishing you much joy in your (hopeful) retirement now that most of the hard work should be “done”! I hope to come out and visit sometime when passing through on my next visit to Westcliffe (depending upon the Covid situation). Please keep in touch and keep letting us know what’s up at the JAZ farm! Cheers,

    * Michael


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