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Living the Homesteader Dream – Part 1

Everything Works Out, and Works, Kind of

I’ve just switched the overdrive off so the truck can more easily handle the trip up the mountain, and beside me, Emma sits—for the second time in as many months—with an eighty-pound deep-cycle battery between her knees.

We’ve spent the last five years getting ourselves to this point: finding a piece of property, getting permits to build, taking down old houses to repurpose materials to build our new house, and going off-grid with the whole thing. In fact, to the disbelief of many, we built our entire house with nothing more than a set of Porter Cable 20V cordless power tools that we had to charge off-site. When we got our solar array and off-grid system running, some 12-plus months into the job, life got a notable touch easier in that regard.

Pulling Nails from Salvaged Wood
Emma pulling nails from salvaged wood. (image provided by author)

For a day job, I’m a part-time caretaker (assistant, really) for wealthy people’s summer homes, and though there is no work to do up there at the moment, or for most of the winter, this is the only access Emma and I have to the 48-volt charge we need to bring our battery back to life.  The properties are part of a resort with golf courses, and the golf carts have eight 6-volt batteries run in series to produce the 48-volt go-juice required for the well-heeled to navigate the greens.

Not all that long ago, we had little to no understanding of what “in series” or 48-volt charge meant. The only reason we know the particulars now is because, when our solar system battery died last time, the solar sales company’s customer support told us we needed to find a 48-volt battery charger. The thing about that is nowhere has 48-volt battery chargers. 12-volt, sure. 24-volt, likely. 48-volt, not a chance. It’s a specialty order. Unfortunately, one can’t use a 12-volt or 24-volt charger to do what we need to do.

Last time this happened, by freak accident, my boss remembered the golf carts used them. So, we borrowed the golf cart charger, jimmy-rigged a set of alligator clips to hook onto the chargers plug, and learned that the golf cart charger only gave 48-volts when the golf cart’s computer allowed it to do so. The sick irony is that we didn’t even need to charge the battery. We just needed a few seconds of 48-volt charge so that our battery would snap out of its protection mode and function long enough to power the battery charge controller so that the sun/solar panels could do the charging.

This morning, after two days with no sun whatsoever, the battery charge dropped low enough to go into protection mode again. We discovered this at about 4:00 in the morning when Emma gets up to teach online. In the dark with one flashlight between us, we scurried around setting up a propane generator, our back-up power source, to run a laptop, light bulb and Wi-Fi connection.

When we reach the top of the mountain, the sun is shining and the sky is that captivating blue Carolinians are so proud of. It’s only a quick couple of turns to get where we are going. Though the fog has been thick all day, the weather forecast has suggested the sun would burn off the haze for a couple of hours in late afternoon. We’ve made this trip on the off-chance that this short window of clarity does happen.

To get the battery to wake up we do something akin to jumping off a car with a dead battery. We hook jumper cables to the golf cart’s batteries to zap ours with the appropriate voltage. We check that the procedure has worked with our neighbour’s multi-meter, the same we borrowed last time, because we’ve continually forgotten to buy one (about $20) of our own when in town, half-an-hour away.

Looking down from mountaintop awash in sunshine, we can see that the valley below—where our house is—is socked in with impenetrable cloud cover. It’s about 2:30. In January, even on the best of days, the sun sets between 4:30 and 5:00. What else is there to do but start heading back down the mountain and hope for a break—a break in the clouds, a break in off-grid living.

Taking Down Abandoned 100-Year Old House #1
Taking down abandoned 100-year old house (image provided by author)

Adding to the madness of our solar set-up is that what we’ve got was never the plan. We actually bought a nickel-iron battery set-up and system about four months before the one currently in the cabinet. After the company failed to send the nickel iron batteries or information to help us pass our building inspection with them, after four months—having spent the largest sum of money we’d ever spent on anything—of being in limbo between unanswered phone calls, we asked for a refund, paid a couple hundred dollars in “restocking fees” though the equipment never left the shelf, and made a new plan.

We’d wanted a nickel-iron system because the batteries last for decades. Literally, the original electric cars (as in before gasoline-powered cars existed) used nickel-iron batteries, some of which still function. The other great thing about the nickel-iron set up is that it isn’t toxic like other systems and consists of easily mined resources. However, in the United States, we could only find one company from which to buy them.

When that failed, we went with what we believed was a suitably responsible replacement option, for both the environment and longevity: Lithium Ferro Phosphate. This system arrived quickly, so much so that a dozen boxes of components sat for the next six months in the back corner of the cabin we were renting/borrowing, awaiting us to be ready to run electricity in the cabin we were building. We finally saw the lights in late October, which meant we could finally have running water because the system could power our well-pump. That happened by mid-November.

Unfortunately, in terms of calling for our final inspection, we were still missing one major piece: the wood-burning cookstove that was meant to be our main source of heat to warm the house and prepare our meals in the winter. We’d ordered it in early September to arrive mid-October, six weeks later. We’d gone with a new model to be more efficient and cleaner. We’d also gotten one with a smaller footprint than the old 1900s models that passed around on classifieds websites. Our cabin is a one-room jobbie with little space to spare.

About two weeks later, we got a call that the first stove (yes, that’s “first”) would arrive in the next couple of days. We’d timed everything for it to arrive about a month later than that, so we scrambled to get a hearth put in place for the 600-pound stove to sit on and arranged for our neighbour with a tractor to help us unloading it. The delivery company was only obligated to get the shipping crate from the back of the truck to the ground. After that, we had to shoulder the task of getting the stove from outside to inside.

Though the task seemed Herculean, we thought we were ready for when the shipment arrived. Then, our neighbour had forgotten he was meant to help us and had left for the day, with no way to contact him. We could manage because the weather was meant to be decent overnight, and we could use tarps for protection. The driver had nonchalantly plopped the delivery right off the back of the truck, as far as his pallet jack would take it, and it was sitting in the middle of the yard. While this didn’t seem ideal, it was a much better situation than it sitting in the middle of the road, blocking anyone from driving through.

When we unwrapped the stove to inspect it, we discovered that two large holes had been blasted from the inside of the firebox through the back of the stove. We’d ordered a model that had an optional water jacket so that we could use it for hot water as well as cooking and heating. However, with the water jacket installed, the stove lost its UL-listing (a certification that proves the device has passed safety tests and thus passes building codes). Legend tells: Our stove, sin water jacket, had passed, but it had never been tested with the water jacket. To circumvent this problem, we’d ordered the stove under the caveat that we were able to install the water jacket later, when passing a building inspection was no longer an issue.

With that in mind, the manufacturer torched two gapping, painfully jagged holes into the stove where the inlet and outlet of the water jacket would eventually be. Beyond the hatchet job left from making the holes with a torch, an even bigger problem came to be: A wood-burning stove with two holes blasted through the firebox doesn’t pass code, either. The driver was still there, waiting for a signature that verified he’d done his job, and I said bad words. Not directed at him, mind you, but a lot of them. He couldn’t take the stove back because the damage wasn’t a result of transport. He just left us with a smirking, “Guess I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”

Torched Holes in the Cookstove
Torched Holes in the Cookstove (image provided by author)

So, the stove had to just sit where it was until we got everything sorted out. Rather than getting into the many and infuriating details of that, suffice it to say that the stove company paid for the delivery service to come back and get the damaged husk sitting in the yard. At the same time, they bestowed us with a next new problem altogether: That was the last stove of its kind in the warehouse. It would be two months before a new ship could be sent out unless we wanted to get a different stove.

We chose a very similar model: new, efficient, small footprint. It was an upgrade, actually, which cost us another few hundred dollars, something that seemed unfair to me but not to the company. This one was set to arrive in under a month: mid-November, right about the time the running water thing happened. After a couple of weeks, the upgraded second stove got delayed for an additional month, meaning it would arrive about the time the second delivery of the first model would have.

We were hoping to be in the house by mid-November. We needed to be in the house. We now had water pipes with water, and the weather was about to be really cold. Freezing. Pipe-bursting freezes. Then, the stove got delayed indefinitely……..

Part 2 of Living the Homesteader Dream will be published next week.

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Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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