Adjusting to off grid living

Many people say they couldn’t live off grid because they couldn’t live without electricity. My wife was one of those people. 1st of all we seem to forget that less than 100 years ago over 50% of the U.S. population lived without electricity and the vast majority of the people in the world have had electricity for less than that. Somehow people actually lived for thousands of years without it. But how was that possible? They simply had other ways of doing things. They used wax and oils for light, wood for cooking and heating and hand tools and animals before power tools and tractors.

How have we gotten so far away that most have forgotten the valuable skills needed to live without electricity? Why remember, teach and practice these skills if we have easier even automated ways of doing them? This is a battle the Amish have fought since automation and electricity became available. They saw the potential downside of the loss of these vital skills. We need to recognize that too and we need to learn those skills while we still can.

The U.S. government commissioned a study by top experts to find out what would likely happen if the electric grid went down in a catastrophic way. The report came back that it would take around 10 years to get electricity working around the country. They could get a few cities up in a few years but they said that 90% of Americans would die in the first year without electricity. That seemed like a ridiculously high number so I researched to figure out how they came to that conclusion. For starters most people don’t have more than 3 days worth of food in there house most of the time. Why should we? The store isn’t very far away for most people and you can get in your car and drive there without using much of your own energy. But if the grid goes down then trucks stop delivering to stores and the shelves empty very quickly. Just look at pictures and videos of store shelves when a hurricane or blizzard if announced for an area. Next you might drive around from store to store hoping to get enough for to last you. By the time you’re done you notice that you’re low on gas so you go to the gas station to fill up and either the lines are huge and the gas is being rationed or you can’t get any because the pumps run on electricity and the gas station doesn’t have a backup generator. Now you go home to wait it out until the power comes back on. It doesn’t, you’re running out of food and it’s getting really cold out. You realize that your gas or oil furnace doesn’t work without electricity. Many people will starve because even if they have a lot of food they will run out and without the skills and seeds to grow more or skills to hunt or forage they will die. Some will freeze or die of heat stroke depending on where they live. Some will die due to lack of medical care and medication. Others will succumb to diseases from lack of good sanitary conditions and still others will have mental breakdowns that lead to their demise. It is a bleak picture but a possible reality for the future. We need to take advantage of whatever time we have to relearn the skills of old. In doing so we can realize that living off grid now is a great way to be prepared for the future.

I also want to mention that off grid doesn’t have to mean living without electricity but rather generating your own electricity and managing your use in a responsible manner. Off grid living can be as primitive or modern as you want it to be.

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Redundancy on the homestead

Most people look at having what they need as mostly a now thing. That’s not to be confused with wanting what you need when you can get it.

When we moved to our homestead we basically had one of everything we needed and we took great comfort in that. We quickly found out that wouldn’t cut it. There are things you need a backup for and even a backup for your backup. Our first experience with this was with our generator. We came to our homestead to live off grid and needed a generator before we got our solar and wind power going. We brought a great running generator that we had for a couple of years. It was able to power our RV and the power tools we planned to use to build the house. After the 1st month of heavy use it decided to go to the happy power plant in the sky or wherever generator spirits go when they die. It had a wonderful safety feature to protect the engine from catastrophic failure, a low oil cut off. I checked the oil diligently for the 1st few weeks and it stayed full. A week later the oil level got too low and the low oil cutoff switch did not work.

These things don’t happen during convenient store hours but rather late at night. We had also sunk most of our money into buying the property and everything we felt we needed to live there.

The next day after choking on sticker shock from the price of new generators I found a used Briggs and Stratton 8500 watt generator. It ran great and we could afford it so I brought it home. It was great for several weeks and then it died. The same thing happened, the low oil cutoff failed and the motor burned up. I would never buy one of these generators again.

After some research we decided to buy a new Champion generator at Tractor Supply co. It was the cheapest one I could find because it was all we could manage at the time. Tractor Supply offered a 30 day return or replacement policy which with our track record seemed like it would work to our advantage. They ended up giving us around 10 more generators over a years time. While it saved us a lot of money they almost always stopped working at times when we needed them the most. We realized three important things from this experience, quality matters, most generators are only made for occasional use and having a backup or 2 was an absolute necessity. If you want a long lasting reliable generator you will need to get a commercial or industrial generator. These are made to run for long periods of time. When we checked the prices on these generators we knew we couldn’t get one without incurring debt, which we’re against. I decided to try to find a used one. I looked on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace. Much to my surprise I found someone selling a Generac commercial grade generator for only a couple hundred dollars. I was excited so I contacted the seller immediately and asked when I could come pick it up. I wanted it now before someone else got it. The seller put me off for a week due to his work schedule. I needed a generator right away so I looked until I found someone selling an industrial grade Mitsubishi generator. I went and picked it up and was thrilled with it. It ran great and it was my first generator with an electric starter. That was very exciting after countless hours in frigid temperatures pulling and pulling the cord to get our generators to start. If at all possible get a generator with an electric starter. A day or two later the first guy was ready to meet me with his generator. Since I was able to purchase the Mitsubishi generator for only $150 I thought it would be a good idea to have a backup. I met the guy and bought the Generac for $140. The total cost of both generators was less than the cheap one I bought new. I have had and used both of them for a year and a half and both are still working fine. I also developed a habit of watching for other commercial/industrial generators that were being sold cheap. As a result I also picked up a 6500 watt water cooled commercial Honda generator for only $150 and a small 1400 watt commercial grade Honda for only $75. Those deals don’t come along everyday but if you’re paying attention you can find them. We now have our solar and wind turbine up but it’s nice to know that when needed I will have at least one working generator at all times, even in the middle of the night.

A couple of side notes I would like to leave you with, I can’t begin to express how much better it is to have an electric start generator. We tried propane generators because they are supposed to last longer and we connect a big tank to it so it would run longer than a gas generator. They seemed great at first but when the temperature dropped to 10 degrees F and below it wouldn’t start. The regulators and valves are prone to freezing up and blocking fuel flow.

IT’S TIME, IT’S TIME!

It’s finally here! My favorite time of the year. I get to kiss winter goodbye and start planting. There are still some frosts to come but I can start seeds in my glass greenhouse. It’s not a huge greenhouse at 18′ x 6′ but with my current setup I can start more than 400 plants. I plan to install more shelves so I can plant somewhere around 200 more plants. I might even build onto the greenhouse and double the size.

Last year the starter plants did really well. I started soaking the seeds before planting and only planted the seeds that germinated. It was a great way to do it because everything I planted came up. The success rate was so great that I’ll never do it any other way. I only used well water that is rich in minerals. If you haven’t tried it you should.

MVP of the Off Grid Homestead House

Living off grid is at least in part a quest to be self sufficient. To that end we had to look at how we can meet our needs without outside resources. Food being a top need we obviously grow and raise as much as possible but then we have to store and prepare the food for consumption. We of course collected hundreds and hundreds of canning jars as well as water bath and pressure canners. After that we had to decide how we would heat the canners and cook our food. One easy answer for off grid people is to use a propane stove. While that is effective it isn’t a long term option for self sustainability. We do have a propane stove/oven but we also added a Glenwood C wood cook stove to our kitchen. It has proven itself to be the MVP of our homestead house. In addition to cooking and baking our food it gives us a large surface to use multiple canners at the same time. If that wasn’t enough reason to have one it also provides roughly 25% of the heat for the house and can also heat our hot water. Most of all we don’t need any resources from off our property to run it which makes it 100% self sustaining for us.

We like it so much we bought a second wood cook stove to use in our outdoor kitchen so we can cook in the summertime without adding heat to the house.

Polar Vortex on the homestead

This week we have been dealing with temperatures in the negatives. As much fun as that sounds it comes with challenges. We replaced our wood stove last fall because the previous one didn’t provide enough heat for our whole house. This year we are using a very large Timberline wood stove that puts out tons of heat. Even on the coldest nights we’ve had, everyone has been warm and comfortable. It is a delightful change. So here’s what we’ve learned; the stove needs to be rated to heat more square feet than you have and if you’re off grid like we are only use a 100% radiant heat stove such as cast iron or soapstone. Our last stove used a blower to move the heat from the fire box out into the house. It wasn’t radiant unless it was running at a very high temperature. The fire box was surrounded by a steel box that held the heat until the blower circulated it into the house. The stove vented on the sides so it didn’t blow towards the areas we frequented so the heat took a while to get to us and was diminished by the time it got there. The stove was rated for the square footage of our house but it wasn’t enough and we were chilled much of the winter. Finally the blower motor died and we got much less heat. With our radiant stove we don’t need a blower or electricity and as soon as it gets going we start to warm up fast. An added benefit is we have a nice cooking surface so we can get the most out of our stove. We also have a wood cook stove in the kitchen for extra heat when needed and of course for cooking and baking in the cooler months.

Let it snow, let it snow…No. No, No!

What a winter it has been. I really can’t complain. Here we are almost at the end of January and we just got our 1st major snow storm of the winter. That is really great for our area. Of course we’ve had a pretty standard amount of cold temperatures but that’s not so bad when you can still see the ground. On our homestead there are many things lost to us during the winter due to the snow cover. But we have been able to continue some projects that we wouldn’t normally be able to. All that came to a screeching halt Saturday night as the snow came down heavily until everything was buried under a foot of snow. Now I can only see snowy mounds of materials for projects and thanks to all the rain we’ve had everything is frozen in. I look longingly towards them dreaming of completing the projects planned for those materials. For now it’s just a dream but hopefully in another 6-8 weeks we can get going again.

Don’t get me wrong, I like snow, I just don’t like the effect it has on our projects, equipment and our overall progress.

Every winter is different and this one was expected to be our best prepared one yet. Last year our plow was our tractor and it broke down as winter came on. We are blessed to have wonderful neighbors that are willing to come plow us out when we can’t do it. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal , it is. We have a 1/4 mile long driveway and other large areas that need to be cleared.

This winter we were ready or so I thought. The tractor ran great all year and I bought a truck with a plow. I went to hook up the plow to my truck and it wouldn’t go right, left or up and down. Tested it out and it needs a new pump. Ok, so no big deal I can just plow with my tractor. I got on and started to start it and as I was turning it over my son that was standing by said “I think we have a problem ” it turns out the same bolt that broke last year broke again this year. Last year I just clamped vise grips on to the broken piece of bolt stuck in the tractor and got another one to put in. This year the bolt broke not leaving enough to get a grip on, what a pain. So once again I had to call my neighbor to plow us out. No matter how self sufficient you want to be it’s still good to have friends.

Homestead security

I mean really, why would you need security on a peaceful homestead? Simple, to keep it that way. There’s much to protect on a homestead. At the top of my list is privacy but there’s also protecting my animals from predators and my garden from grazers. I also don’t want people walking through and trampling my wild edibles and medicinal herbs. I don’t want people tearing through the property on dirt bikes, 4 wheelers or snowmobiles. I want my family to be safe walking around the property without getting shot by a hunter and I don’t want to worry about getting sued because somebody comes on my property and gets hurt ( we had a teacher from a nearby school bring his class onto our property, past the No Trespassing signs and around the locked gate and let them climb on and run on train cars we have. I caught them and kicked them out before a kid fell and broke their neck. ). Security on a homestead is as much about protecting the future as it is about protecting the present.

So how do you provide security and protection for your homestead and everything on it? Start with gates at the access points of the property, put up plenty of fencing and No Trespassing signs along the property borders and around garden and livestock areas and keep a firearm handy to deter or stop the 2 and 4 legged predators.

We love visitors but we want them to be invited. People you don’t know don’t usually care about your property and they can be very destructive to what you are trying to develop. Securing our homestead is one of our top priorities and should be yours too.

Rain, rain go away!

A trench we dug after the snow came for a water line. It is 200 ft long and 4 ft deep. It filled with water immediately.

Since last April all the way into December we had rain like I’ve never seen in these parts. It was great for our garden until August when we got so much rain it caused root rot and kept us from getting a full harvest. It also limited our progress on outdoor projects but worst of all it put us so far behind on processing wood that we are still cutting now in January which means we are spending lots of time out in the cold and getting seasoned wood that is damp at best. We have to use our dry wood which is limited to get enough heat in the wood stove to get the damp wood to burn. Fortunately we found a sawmill that sells dry hardwood slabs for a really low price. Come spring we will start cutting for next winter as soon as things thaw out.

These things even though they were mostly out of our control have been a good lesson to teach us to plan for difficult situations.