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The Intrepid Homestead

One Family's journey toward a simpler, sustainable, prepared homestead and life

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Green Living

Simple solar power for outbuilding lights and pumping water

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In this post, we’ll show you the simple steps we took to setup our goat barn with solar-powered lighting and running water.

Note: Though titled as ‘simple’, some will no doubt find this complex. Understandable, however, nothing beyond grade-school math or a calculator is necessary for figuring this out. Take your time and try to understand it, ask questions in the comments if you don’t understand.

Our goal

Our goat barn is over 1000′ from our home, and the thought of running power to it gives us heartburn. Not only would that be tremendously labor-intensive, but also expensive and disruptive. We needed power to light the goat barn when we needed to be in there in the dark, and also to support having running water. We don’t spend more than one hour per day in the goat barn, so the true amount of time we would need to light it or run water was small.

Calculating the loads

To determine what we needed was fairly simple. First, we located the 12v LED lights we wished to use. We wanted something simple and common and found these on Amazon. They had good reviews and only consumed 7w while running. We knew we wanted to install four light fixtures but typically would only have two on most of the time the lights would be on. The maximum “load” of these bulbs (the watts times the hours to get Wh) would be about 28 Wh/day, or .028 kWh.

Next, we knew we needed to pump water from our rain tanks into the barn and out through a faucet and utility sink. This too was easily accomplished by using a 12v Shurflow RV water pump, also available on Amazon. This pump has an internal pressure switch which will turn the pump on when the pressure is low (ie, when a faucet is opened). However, we had an old pressure tank laying around and wanted to run the pump less often than every time we opened the faucet, so we hooked up the pump to fill the pressure tank. When the tank reaches pressure, it triggers the pump to turn off and also has plenty of pressure at the faucet. The maximum load of this pump we calculated at about an hour per day (which is very conservative since it runs more like 10 minutes a day). The amp draw is about 6 amps, so we calculated 12 Volts x 6 Amps = 72 Watts for one hour a day equals 72 Wh or .072 kWh.

So far, we need to support less about 1 kWh per day. No problem!

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Batteries

Now, we’d not typically recommend using deep cycle marine batteries for solar applications, because they’re really not designed for multiple cycles of deep discharging – something you regularly do with solar applications, but we had two on-hand, and let’s be reasonable – we needed to support some pretty small loads. So we wired these together in parallel, which keeps the voltage at 12 V but combines their amps. We did this to be sure that we’d never discharge the batteries below a very very small margin of their capacity, which helps them last a long time.

To help understand how this works, picture this… treat your batteries like a bank account. Treat your loads like withdrawals and your solar input like deposits. If you withdrawal more than you can put back in, you have a deficit (a dead battery). You need to size all your components so that the ratio of withdrawals and deposits keeps the battery happy.

Our system would take about 100 watts per day from the batteries. We need to put at least that much back in. Now.. to figure out what kind of solar panel to get, we needed to know about how many hours of sun we could expect on average. This is called “solar insolation”. There are many useful maps online that show what average hours are for any area. Ours is approximately 5.5 hours. This means that the average amount of usable sun hours per day, across all days of the year and average weather – would be 5.5.

Though we get 5.5 hours of sun a day on average, we can still go a week or so of no meaningful sun in our part of the world. We want to make sure our stuff works when this happens so we might need to support up to 5-7 day withdrawing  100 Watts of power, but with no deposits (no solar). These 5-6 days are called “Days of Autonomy” (DOA), or how many non-sun days we want to run without recharging.We also had to keep in mind that our batteries had to be adequately sized so that we could

We also had to keep in mind that our batteries had to be adequately sized so that we could withdraw 500-700 watts of power from the batteries without significantly discharging the batteries. This is why we used two because the amount taken out of each would be small. With something like a deep cycle battery, you shouldn’t really discharge them more than maybe 20% or you risk killing the batteries. Some solar batteries support much deeper discharges, but not these. The gist is that you need to make sure that after taking all you plan to take from your batteries, you still need to have the right amount of energy remaining. The percentage of how much of the battery energy you can safely take is called the “Depth of Discharge” or “DoD”. Our DoD would be 20%.

If we had been buying new batteries, we would have needed to buy batteries where 20% of their capacity was enough to supply 500-700 Watts. Solar batteries are measured by Amp hours. We have watts. How does that work? Well… take your watts, divide by the voltage of your system and you have the Amps.

100 W per day x 7 DOA = 700 W
700 W / 12 Volts = 58 Amps

Now multiply the Amps by the hours you need them. This is where it gets tricky because we don’t need our energy all at once. The most we will ever need at once is about8.33 Amps. How did I know that? Because, our total wattage, while everything is running is 72 Amps for the water pump plus 28 Watts for the bulbs or 100 watts total. Our system voltage is 12V (the voltage of the batteries, the soon to be solar panel, etc). 100 / 12 = 8.333.

If we ran all our loads for one hour, we would withdrawal the power at a rate of about 8.3 Amps per hour (8.3 AH). Assuming we need that for seven days, we’d need a battery that could support 8.3 AH for 7 days with a total of 58.1 AH.

Now… remember, we can only take 20% or so, so we actually need a battery that has a capacity 5x as much to get what we need out of 20%. 58.1 * 5 = 290.5 AH. Most solar batteries are measured in AH at 20 hours. Forget about what that means for now, but that is the number you want to compare when looking at your total AH needs vs the battery capacity. So, to summarize, to support 58.1 AH of need, we need a 290.5 AH battery. That gives us all the storage we will need to support 7 days of 1-hour per day usage and still not kill our battery.

Solar Panel

We needed a panel that provided as much resupply of watts to our depleted batteries as we’re taking out, plus a little room for margin. We were going to be taking out about 700/week, so we need to make sure we could at least put that much back in. So, we have 5.5h of sun per day on average, and 7 days to collect the sun during that week, that means we had about 38.5 sun hours per week to harvest about 700 W of power.  You shouldn’t just divide 100 w by 5.5 hours because there are a few more elements to consider. Namely, how many days we’d want to be able to run without any sun. We can get a week or so of no meaningful sun in our part of the world. We want to make sure our stuff works when this happens, so we might need to have 5-7 days of withdrawing 100 Watts of power, but with no deposits.

Since that represents best-case scenario and the weather and sun isn’t constant, we didn’t want to just divide 700 W by 38.5 sun hours and figure on an 18 W solar panel. It might work but would more often than not be insufficient. We decided on a 100 W solar panel from the great folks at Alt-E Store. They’re super-helpful, have a great YouTube channel, and are eager to help.

With a 100W panel operating at let’s say, 85% efficiency, we could potentially collect 3,272.5 Watts of power in seven days, or 467.50 Watts per day. Since we only should use 100 watts per day, this left us plenty of buffer and room to grow a little. We added this mount to a schedule 40 iron pipe placed 3′ into the ground and were ready to go.

Charge controller

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A charge controller is an important piece of the puzzle. Some try to be cheap and avoid them to their potential peril. A charge contoller manages the incoming solar power and charges the battery until the battery is “full”, at which time it prevents over-charging of the battery. They also often have a ‘blocking diode’ of sorts that prevents the energy in the battery from flowing into the solar panels when there is no sun (i.e. at night). We purchased this charge controller for that use. It is important to note that you need to have a charge controller that can support the charging amps you’ll be putting into it. Those charging Amps are a measure of the panel watts divided by the panel voltage (100 W / 12 V = 8.3 A). Your charge controller should be support slightly higher than your maximum charging Amps. Ours is 10.5 so we’re good.

Miscellaneous

To add some additional security and also to make things more organized, we purchased a marine battery terminal block on Amazon. We landed all our circuits positive wires to this block and all the negatives to the negative block it came with. This also gave us the ability to add fuse protection to all the circuits using auto fuses.

From there we simply wired everything together and turned it all on!

Using this for rainwater collection and pumping

We collect rainwater from our goat barn into IBC totes, some 3″ PVC pipe, a Rain Harvesting First Flush Downspout Water Diverter Kit, and a few misc pieces such as the Leaf Eater Advanced Rain Head and a stainless steel filter. We then use the RV (Shurflow) water pump mentioned above and pump the water through a standard household water filter and into a surplus pressure tank that we had on-hand. The pressure tank can be turned on/off with a valve

We then use the RV (Shurflow) water pump mentioned above and pump the water through a standard household water spin-down filter and a carbonb filter into a surplus pressure tank that we had on-hand. Oh… and we also have found that a 1/2″ PEX/SharkBite check valve is essential to make this work well – prevening the water from draining back into the tanks and keeping the pump primed.

The pressure tank can be turned on/off with a valve in-case we don’t want to bother with it. It can help the motor run less often by storing pressurized water. The pump has to run for longer periods of time, but less often. This can be handy for say… filling the pressure tank during peak sun hours then using the pressurized water during non/low sun hours.

Here are a few pictures:IMG_0238

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Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Organic, or Hybrid – I’m confused!

There can be some confusing information about seeds when choosing to plant a garden. Who would have ever thought there could be so much strong opinion and controversy surrounding the kind of seeds we plant in our gardens! If you’ve shopped for seeds, you may have noticed several terms related to the type and origin of the seeds. These include “heirloom”, “open-pollinated”, “organic”, “hybrid”, and “bio-dynamic”. You might even find some more terms in your shopping!

So what do each of these mean and how do they affect you and your gardening? Let us explain…

Hybrid

Hybrid seeds are those that are derived in the labs of universities or large multi-national corporations. In nature, seed varieties emerge as plants naturally pollinate and the DNA of separate species combine to produce a new species that combine the two. Hybrid seeds are those where that process is purposefully performed in a lab, skipping all the happenstance of nature and replacing it with careful, calculated measures intended to produce a desired result. Furthermore, Hybrid seeds are often created by combining genetic material from species that would not typically combine in nature. This is done to create plants with more favorable characteristics such as color, growing season length, taste,  disease resistance, pest resistance, etc. Because this process occurs in a lab, the typical hybrid result – once grown, is unable to reproduce in kind. Therefore, if one were to keep the seeds of a hybrid variety and plant that seed, the result would not be the same as the parent, but of one of the original contributors of the genetic material of the hybrid seed. This is if the seed grows at all. Oftentimes, these are sterile, or have been “programmed” by the producers to not be able to reproduce.

GMO or Genetically Modified Organism

GMO seeds are those that have been engineered in a lab in such a way that genetic material is modified to produce a certain result. It would be fair to say that all GMO seeds are hybrid seeds, but not all hybrid seeds are GMO. In some cases, the genetic modifications simply mimic nature’s process but in a matter of weeks rather than millennia. Other GMO seeds are far more concerning and at times combine even non-plant genetic material with plant material to produce “super plants” that are resistant to pests and diseases and in some cases even produce their own pesticide! GMO seeds are hybrid and therefore cannot reproduce in kind. It is this family’s opinion that many GMO seeds should be avoided because of the “frankenseed” nature of them. These seeds may contain genetic material that would not normally be found in foods consumed by humans.

Heirloom

Heirloom seeds are simply seeds that are not mass-produced or engineered by large multi-national corporations, but rather come from the slower, manual process of individuals and families preserving the seeds of their best crops over time. . These seeds have been chosen from seasonal crops over many years or decades because of their unique and positive attributes.  Technically, these seeds are not necessarily “open-pollinated” because a farmer of gardener could have manually pollinated their plants in a greenhouse or field for the desired result. Nevertheless, heirloom seeds were produced under circumstances that are harmonious with the natural order of the plant world.

Open-Pollinated

Open-pollinated means that the plant has naturally pollinated in nature without human interruption in a lab. These are varieties that emerged by chance “as the wind blew” genetic material from one variety to another.

Organic

Organic seeds are those that were grown under organic growing conditions and have met the requirements for considering seeds to be certifiably organic. This usually means that the seeds were produced in an environment free of harmful pesticides or chemicals. Some would debate the impact this has on seeds themselves since the resulting plant would not necessarily be effected by the environment in which it’s parent was created. However, others would argue that the DNA of such plants could be damaged or unfavorable altered by being produced under such conditions. In general organic seeds are non-GMO and usually non-hybrid but open-pollinated varieties as well. If you plant these seeds, keep the resulting plant’s seed and re-plant it, you’ll get the same variety of plant. It doesn’t make your plant or garden “organic” all by itself . You’d still have to maintain organic conditions and processes to do so. That’s the topic for another blog – not this one 🙂

Biodynamic

According the wikipedia.. Biodynamic agriculture…

“is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food. As in other forms of organic agriculture, artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides are strictly avoided.

Biodynamic seeds are those that were created under such conditions and/or are intended for those wishing to plant the seeds under such conditions. Usually, this means that the seeds have been certified to be Biodynamic by organizations that define and maintain the standards for such. Most gardeners will not need to concern themselves with using certified biodynamic seeds unless they’re looking to start or maintain a certified biodynamic garden. This is not the interest of the average gardener, but usually a commercial pursuit.

Which is best to use?

We’ve been asked this question plenty of times. There’s no single answer to this question. As a family, we  endeavor to use organic, heirloom, open-pollinated seeds. We do so because we want seeds that were not created in a lab by those driven by profits. We also want to be able to save seeds from year to year in order to maintain a sustainable food production system. However, doing this carries some risk. In general, hybrid seeds are often going to produce higher yields and more resistance to pests and disease than most open-pollinated varieties.

Growing food can be similar to investing in the stock market, some (like us) want a balanced “portfolio” of produce that maximizes reward and minimizes risk. Therefore,  because we try to grow large volumes of our own food, a portion of our planting is often hybrid seed. We still try to avoid most GMO seeds. We choose this mix (at the moment) in order to get more return on our labors and less risk of loss. Were we to plant all open-pollinated varieties, or even single varieties of hybrid seeds, we’d be vulnerable to loss if a pest or weather pattern wreaked havoc on our crop.  However, our “emergency” seed supplies are entirely open-pollinated should we ever need to use them. No matter what you plant, consider planting a variety of the same fruit or vegetable. This minimizes risk and can also provide more enjoyable result.

Conclusion

People garden for a number or reasons. The choice of what seed to grow should be based on the reasons one gardens, the desired outcome, and the convictions of the gardener. We garden to grow our own sustainable food. We also don’t care for the immoral and deceitful business practices of some of the companies who produce hybrid and GMO seeds. We choose what we choose for our environment. At the end of the day, you must make your choices based on your needs. Take the time to learn more about the seeds you buy no matter what kind you decide to use. By doing so, you’ll become a healthier, wiser, and better gardener.

Sprouts – add this tasty super food to your emergency meal planning

Sprouts: Fresh produce all year long – no garden required!

Many people (ourselves included) who value eating healthy, organic, nutritious foods and who also concern themselves with securing a sustainable food supply will eventually ask themselves the question “How will we continue to eat healthy foods when we cannot harvest from the garden?”. There are many natural and disastrous circumstances that could keep one from  growing healthy produce – namely Winter!

We’re big fans of freezing, canning, root cellaring, cold storage, etc. However, those options don’t provide the participants with fresh green produce (typically). Enter sprouts! Sprouts are just what they sound like – sprouted seeds of vegetables, beans, grains, or grasses that are just days old when harvested and consumed. Sprouts are a wonderful addition to a simple, sustainable, healthy, and prepared lifestyle. Sprouts are super-easy to grow, offer superior nutritional and health benefits, require little to no energy to produce, can be eaten fresh, and require little investment.

Getting started with sprouting

Making sprouts is easy and requires little investment. While you can sprout seeds in mason jars, clear plastic or glass containers, etc. we chose to buy a sprouting kit. The kit below was a small $12-$14 investment was well worth it and allows us to sprout up to three kinds of sprouts at once with just a few square inches of counter space, a few cups of water, and a few days. To sprout three trays of sprouts probably requires us about 30 minutes of total time investment.

A great, simple sprouter
This great little sprouter is available for about $12-$14 at Amazon. Click to see.

The sprouting process is simple. You place a small amount of the sprouting seed (more on that in a minute) on the tray, fill the top reservoir with water, and let it trickle down through all the layers of seeds, wetting each layer of seeds. Do this twice a day and in about three to five days, keeping the sprouting container in a well lit area of your home and you’ll have fresh sprouts ready to eat. How’s that for quick and healthy food?

Sprouts as a survival/emergency food

Sprouts should be added to the food strategy of anyone looking to create a secure and sustainable food supply. Firstly, sprout seeds are vegetable seeds so they can serve the dual purposes of sprouting for food, or growing to fully mature plants in the garden. Secondly, seeds are easy to store. As long as they’re clean, dry, cool, and dark, they should hold up in storage for a between 1-10 years! We consider them sustainable because we can plant the seeds, harvest harvest the crops from those seeds, keep seeds from the crop and store them again and again (if using non-GMO, non-hybrid seeds that is). They’re also great because the don’t require much space, require no real “labor” to speak of (compared to gardening), very little water, and tolerate most indoor temperatures. In summary, sprouts are hard to mess up!

Sprouting seeds – a smorgasbord of flavors and variety

If all you know of sprouting is alfalfa sprouts you can buy in the store – it’s time to expand your horizons! There are tons of varieties of sprouts to choose from. Leafy sprouts such as alfalfa, clover, and arugula. There’s “Bean” sprouts such as mung bean, garbanzo (chick pea), pea, lentil and peanut. Then there’s Brasicca sprouts such as broccoli, radish, mustard and more. Perhaps you might like Grasses (wheat, barley), Grains (spelt, quinoa, kamut), Nuts (almonds, sunflower), or Allium sprouts (garlic, leek, onion). There’s not shortage of things to sprout! You cannot sprout everything (ie. never sprout nightshades like tomato, potato, and eggplant).

When we got started, we were not sure what we’d like, so we purchased a 12lb variety pack (seen below). It’s been a great way to add to our emergency food supply as well as discover what we like. So far, the clear winner in our home are lentils!

This is the 12lb organic sprout seed sampler we purchased. It's a good way to get a lot of seeds, and also discover what you like.

Ancient wisdom with modern repercussions

Sprouting seed has been around for a loooong time! Take a look at this scripture verse:

“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. – Ezekiel 4:9

I don’t know about you… but if there were a food that I knew could keep me alive for 390 days eating nothing else, I think I’d add it to my emergency food supplies. In the verse above, God instructed the prophet Ezekiel to make a bread from sprouted grains and eat it (exclusively) for just such a duration. It’s no wonder… take a look at the nutritional value of sprouts:

  • Vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K
  • Calcium
  • Carbohydrates
  • Chlorophyll
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Niacin
  • Pantothenic Acid
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • All Amino Acids
  • Trace Elements
  • Protein: up to 35%

Do we want to eat sprouts/sprouted bread for 390 days? Of course not. However, it’s nice to know that there are simple, healthy, inexpensive, and sustainable foods that can sustain our lives and the lives of those we love. Heh, sprouting was worthwhile enough for God to instruct Ezekiel to give it a shot – maybe you should give them a try too?!

Please post your own thoughts about sprouts in the comments below.

Time to think about gardening!

It’s snowing furiously outside at the moment. It probably seems crazy to think about gardening this time of year, but this is when we start to plan for the upcoming season. Where we live, the growing season us typically from the end of May til the end of September. Gardening, like most things worth doing, takes preparation and advanced planning. There are seeds and stock to buy, beds to build, repair, and manage, plants to start, and much much more.

We’ve recently bought nearly 100 types of seeds not counting seed potatoes and sweet potato slips that we’ll start ourselves this weekend likely (see prior post on growing sweet potatoes). This year we aim to grow several thousand pounds of produce. Yes, you read that right several thousand pounds. Why so much? We aim to grow as much of our own foods as possible. This includes food for immediate consumption throughout the growing season as well as food to store for the winter. We also like to share with others and this gives us the means to do that.

Here’s some of what we’re growing (multiple varieties of each):  Amaranth, Beans, Beats, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Burdock Root, Butternut Squash, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Eggplants, Jerusalem Artichokes, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuce, Melons, Onions, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Rutabaga, Salad Greens, Salsify, Scorzonera, Shallots, Spinach, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnip, Watermelons, and Zucchini.

As you can see, that’s not your average salad garden! We’re not sure we’re finished procuring all we’ll plant either 😉 We enjoy variety, color, and diversity in our diet. Many of these items can be consumed this summer and fall and many will be canned, frozen, or sent the root cellar for keeping through next winter.

While we are big believers in organic and open-pollinated seeds, we do not exclusively use them. Why? Because we want to strike a balance between open-pollinated seeds and a good yield. If we grew only open pollinated varieties, we’d likely have less yield. That’s because hybrid plants have been selectively bred to resist pathogens and disease. If we could devote ourselves full-time to this effort, we could get good yields with open pollinated varieties, but it would take time that we cannot commit at this time. A combination of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrids is the best combination for our needs. We purchased nearly all our seeds from Johnny’s and Baker’s Creek. Both companies offer great selection of beautiful seeds with good germination rates.

We’re having a local nursery business start much of our seeds for us this year. This benefits the local economy and spares us the space and expense of starting seeds. It’s not as easy as many might think. Hopefully, we’ll move to a suitable property where we can expand and setup a small greenhouse to start plants. Until then, having a professional start them for us is a cheaper alternative.

We have several large garden plots on our property as well as several raised beds. To accommodate all we want to plant this year, we’re going to add about 10 4’x8′ raised beds and some additional plot space. There are many benefits to raised beds;  they make managing the soil easier, weeding easier and less frequent, erosion control, they can help control the delicate air/water mixture needed for good yield and a host of other benefits. Additionally, they don’t require digging and can be filled with a growing medium works for our environment. We’ll likely be building ours out of engineered decking planks. These offer rot resistance without chemicals leaching into the soil that could be harmful and should be easier to acquire than cedar.

How bout you? What steps do you take this time of year to prepare for gardening season?

Preserve Razors: Good for the environment and cheap too!

We’re constantly surprised just how much disposable razors cost. They must be made of gold and silver given the prices of the blade refill packs! In our opinion, the pricing structure really encourages consumers to keep buying the razors anew since it’s usually less expensive than buying the refill packs. So much for re-use!

On a recent trip to our favorite grocer – Wegmans – we discovered Preserve Razors and refill packs. These razors are made largely from recycled Stonyfield Farm yogurt cups! Aside from being made of recycled materials, these were far cheaper than any leading brand we could find. We were able to pick up a tripe razor with extra blade for $4.99. We even found 4-pack refill packs for $5! It would appear that these razors cost 50% less than the major disposable razors.

They work much better than the cheap disposable razors (although they’re not so cheap anymore) – the ones that come 6-8 in a pack – the one piece deals.

This might not sound like big news to living simply, but it’s one more way to make a positive difference for the planet and the pocketbook!

Tips for reducing your electric bill by up to 30%

Here in PA, we’re ever so fortunate (sarcasm) to be headed into a new era deregulated electricity. Our utility provider (PPL Electric) has announced that they expect most residential electric bills such as ours to rise about 30%-32%! Somehow, this is supposed to be a help to our electricity cost. We’ve not figured that out yet.

As the old saying goes, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If your bill is going to go up by 30%, try lowering your consumption by 30% or more. This will not only keep your cost down, but reducing demand lowers prices for everyone.

So what are some relatively low-investment ways you can reduce your electric bill by 30% or more? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Setup a clothes line. This is the cheapest way to go solar there is! According to Dept. of Energy statistics, clothes dryers account for nearly 6%  of household electric bills (average).
  2. Go Green One Day – unplugging most of your non-essential electricity for one day a week. This could save most households up to 15% of their electricity cost.
  3. Track down and eliminate “ghost loads” of electricity – appliances that use power when not even on (DVD, TVs, Phones, etc). A Kil-A-Watt is a great way to find these. Conservatively, we think this could save most households 1-2%
  4. Install a high-efficiency, water-saving shower head. Doing so appears to reduce our family’s utility cost. This is not direclty reducing the electric bull by a whopping amount, but reduces our utility costs in an amount that equals approximately 5-8% of our electricity cost. This is roughly the cost of one month’s electric bill! See our recent post for details.

So, the above simple steps could reduce your expenses by up to 31% of your yearly electric costs (by our estimates). None of the above are expensive or difficult to implement or require advanced DIY skills.

Have additional tips? Post em’ in the comments.

Why water-saving shower heads are a good investment

Many people might not think to look at their showers as being a source of potential energy and cost savings. That’s unfortunate, because there’s money to be saved in the shower along with natural resources too.

Consider the following scenario: Here’s the simple math for a family of four each taking a 7 minute with an average water-saving shower head (2.6 gallons per minute, or “gpm”):

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 2.6 gallons = 72.8 gallons per day
  • 72.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.11 per day
  • 72.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $1.46 per day
  • Cost per 7 minute shower = $.37
  • $1.46 + $.11 = $1.57 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $1.57 X 365 = $573.05 per year!

Here’s the math for the savings this family would see by just installing a high-efficiency shower head:

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 1.6 gallons = 44.8 gallons per day
  • 44.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.07 per day
  • 44.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $.87 per day
  • $.87 + $.07 = $.94 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $.94 X 365 = $343.10 per year!

So just by installing new shower heads, there’s several hundred dollars a year to be saved in water and energy cost. We’ve installed Peerless 76154 1.6 GPM Water-Amplifying Showerhead, Chrome units that cost us less than $15 – money well spent!

As you can see, hot water heating can be a major expense. As we aim for a simpler life, we’re aiming to use less water, and less commercially-provided energy heating the water. Stay tuned for our future posts about our attempts to heat hot water in some non-traditional ways!

Kefir: The dairy “swiss army knife”

One if the things we’re interested in doing is maintaining a good variety of healthy foods, but in a way that is affordable and sustainable. At this time, due to where we live, we cannot  get a cow or goats for milk. Despite this, we still want to be able to produce simple dairy products on our own without having to depend on the market for every dairy product. We still have to purchase milk, which we get raw from a local farmer.

Enter Kefir – an ancient fermented milk drink that has been around for eons. We think that kefir is the swiss army knife of dairy for those looking to be able to use one item to produce a variety of other items. Kefir on it’s own is much like yogurt and offers all the same benefits, but in bigger doses and with less work. If kefir grains are added to fresh milk, they will ferment the milk within 24 hours. Once fermented, the resulting kefir can be left to sit for another 1-3 days during which time it will separate into curds and whey. The curds can be eaten, or further refined into “laban” which can be used as cottage and cream cheese right away. Or, salt can be added to this laban and becomes the basis for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan cheese. Also, kefir can be fermented to different lengths and strengths producing different tastes and usefulness.

This whole process does not require refrigeration and is a good way of getting usefulness from milk without energy use. Further, the kefir grains are constantly growing and multiplying, thus keeping the owner in a constant supply of kefir grains to eat, use, or share with others.

This is all in addition to many health benefits known to accompany kefir!

If you’re looking to add a “tool” to your simple life arsenal – particularly if you have access to a fresh supply of milk – consider kefir! You won’t be disappointed!

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop
Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design
Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door
Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop
Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding
Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof
Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

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