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The Intrepid Homestead

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

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Homestead Tech: Drones

The multiple ways in which drones can be used for the small homestead.

We typically like to keep things pretty low-tech. We don’t have an aversion to technology, we just want to do things by means which are easily repeatable by anyone. Nevertheless, there are a few modern technologies that can be really helpful at times. Drones are a good example.

We have found the use of a drone to be time-saving or generally helpful in several ways.

Site Planning: Gardening

Planning gardens can be complex when trying to get an idea of the overall “fit” of the garden(s) into the surrounding landscape, even more so if those gardens are landscape-oriented. Aerial photos of the surroundings can serve as a nice backdrop for planning.

We send the drone up to take photos from different angles. We then import or paste those photos into a word processor (Pages for Mac in our case) and then adjust the opacity to about half. We then crop the photos, print them out and then use these to make sketches of our garden beds, landscaping, etc. Drones allow us to get photos from nearly any perspective which allows us to sketch out ideas from nearly any perspective.

Site Planning: Solar

Drones can also provide helpful aerial perspectives of shadows of the area under consideration. Simply launch the drone to the same altitude/location once per hour of the time you anticipate solar exposure. Do this for each season and you can get a rough idea of the shading of the area throughout the day and seasons. This can be helpful in determining solar panel placement.

Of course, an easier way to do this is with a Solar Pathfinder ( an excellent tool for homesteaders).

Inspecting…

There are numerous forms of inspections where we’ve found a drone to be a helpful addition.

One summer, while doing some light excavating, one of us had the unfortunate experience of scraping the lid off of a very large, underground Yellowjacket colony with our tractor. Fortunately, we were able to turn off the tractor and run away without getting stung. Those kinds of scenarios can be fatal you know!

A couple hours later, rather than risk walking into an angry swarm of homeless Yellowjackets, we were able to send the drone into the area and see where the actual nests were, determine the swarm activity and decide when it was safe to be in the area again. This also helped us determine where to make our “tactical” “surgical” strikes with Black Flag later on ūüôā

Similarly, as beekeepers, there have been times where sending the drone over to the beehives has been more expedient for our needs than suiting up in bee suits, firing up the smoker, etc. Likewise, a drone can be used to get some perspectives on swarms or atypical behaviors. Note: We don’t like to annoy our bees (or any bees), and would advise keeping drone activity near a hive to a minimum.

… solar panels

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We have roof-mounted solar panels. We can’t see them from the ground due to the shallow pitch of the roof. A drone has come in handy numerous times to check the health and status of the solar panels. This is most helpful in the winter to check for snow and ice build up. After all, who wants to climb on a roof in snow and ice?!

… roof and gutters

A quick drone flight can spare us the need to get out a ladder and climb on a roof. The detail level of a drone cannot match a visual inspection, but it can determine if such attention is necessary. It’s much safer than climbing a ladder! It can also be helpful in determining if out-of-reach gutters need to be cleaned.

… fences

A drone isn’t going to be able to replace a human when checking fences but could help small landowners with quickly evaluating the condition of pastures and such. Walking is, of course, better, but not always practical within time constraints. A drone can be treated like a virtual teenager – sent out to do a job ūüôā

… animals

Similar to fences, Wayward Bernese Mountain Dogmaking brief checks on small animal herds is also a helpful way to use drones. If you want to check on the location or general well-being of some animals, or perhaps help locate a stray animal, a drone can be a useful companion in such a task.

Oh… and drones are also useful for quick aerial scans for wayward Bernese Mountain Dogs :-/

 

Monitoring property boundaries

Trespassing is an unfortunate, but very possible and common issue for landowners. In our neck of the woods, this is often in the form of unauthorized hunting, and bored young people with nothing better to do than exploring and destroying other people’s (private) property. Rather than risk confrontation with persons of unknown character and intent, a drone can provide a means of monitoring and

Rather than risk confrontation with persons of unknown character and intent, a drone can provide a means of monitoring and recording of trespassers (in daylight at least) and provide photographic/video evidence if a legal need to do so becomes necessary.

Historical Records

It used to be that you had to pay companies to get aerial photos of the family home and farm. These days, you can buy a drone for a fraction of that cost. Furthermore, you can get aerial photos and videos of your property annually, serving as a nice record of the changes over time. These photos and videos will be important to the generations that come after you.

Real Estate

If the time comes to sell your homestead, aerial photos and videos of your homestead provide a unique perspective on your property to the prospective buyer.

Homestead uses for Thermacore panels

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Thermacore panels (these are 8′ x 24″)

Thermacore panels are the technical/trade name for insulated garage door panels. They have many valuable uses on a homestead or farm. At $.70/sqft (in our area), they are among the least expensive options for most cases where they can be used.

Thermacore panels are painted steel panels filled with about 1 – 1.5″ of solid foam. They have an Insulation value of about R-9 and because they’re steel, have the possible added benefit of being compatible with magnets. Because they’re metal, they cannot easily decay and are easily cleaned with a power washer, etc. Remember… these are made for garage doors.

The panels are easily cut with standard power tools. We use a circular saw with an old blade installed in reverse. We make finer cuts for fixtures and such with a jigsaw with a long metal blade.

Walls

One of our favorite uses for Thermacore panels is for finishing walls in outbuildings, basements, etc. Compared to installing (and more importantly, finishing) drywall ¬†(“sheet rock”) which takes several cycles, Thermacore panels go up very, very fast by screwing them to the framing.

With some forethought in framing, they are very structurally sound and stiffen up walls much more than drywall does. If one is okay with the white-colored finish, the attached panels provide a surface that needs no other finishing aside from a wipe down with a damp rag.

We prefer to install the panels vertically because of the paneled appearance of the panels. When doing so, we have found it adequate to fasten with self-tapping hex screws (3″) at the top and bottom and if possible, the middle of the panels. Usually this requires about a dozen screws per panel. This also sometimes requires horizontal blocking in wall framing About half way up the wall.

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Thermacore panels used as wall sheeting

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These panels are about 1.25″ thick. There is a .25″ gap between the panel and lumber above because it has not yet been fastened tightly.

If  installed horizontally, just fasten to the wall studs as you would with drywall. The panels are designed with edges that slightly overlap the next panel creating a nice fit.

Thermacore panels make great wall sheeting for barns, mudrooms, root cellars, rabbitries, some animal stalls (and with great care to handle sharp edges!) and more.

Shelves

Thermacore panels are very strong. We’ve seen them used for canning shelves, with vertical supports about every four feet. We use them ourselves for barn shelving that hold the largest of plastic tubs filled with all manner of supplies. They are very quick to put up and much less expensive per square foot than a comparable lumber solution. Further, since they’re metal, they’re more forgiving to spills and such.

Raised Garden Beds

Thermacore panels make for very quick and easy garden beds. We’re able to secure them locally in 21″ and 24″ widths and just about any length. Married with 4″ x 4″ corner posts and decorative caps and you have some very nice (and deep) raised garden beds. These panels are metal, and as such could potentially rust if areas without paint are exposed to ground moisture for long durations, but we feel that is less likely to happen compared to wooden beds that would likewise rot.

See an example here: http://yourhouseandgarden.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Garage-doors-into-raised-garden-bed.jpg

Cold frames

Thermacore panels would also make great (though opaque) walls for cold frames. Since these panels have an insulation value of R-9, they provide a very easy means for insulating the sides of a cold frame. Too tall for your liking? Just bury them a few inches into the ground.

Ceilings & Ceiling Sheeting

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Thermacore workshop ceiling

As with wall sheeting, Thermacore panels make for a very fast ceiling solution. Our bank barn has a lower level that is exposed the elements. Thermacore panels attached to the underside of the floor above not only insulate the floor above, but also prevent bees, birds, snakes, and mice from utilizing the space between the rafters.

Potential pitfalls of hyper-frugality

Frugality often seems to go hand-in-hand with the homesteading crowd. People naturally inclined to do things for themselves that others rely upon others to do results in such, or maybe it’s the other way around?

Frugality is great… but can one get carried away with it? This is what I would call “hyper-frugality” – being frugal to the point of working against yourself.

Has anyone ever said on their deathbed “it’s been a good life…I’ve saved all sorts of money!”? I doubt it. Saving money for saving it sake is kinda pointless. Frugality should lead to freedom from need, not delaying real needs to “save”. The latter doesn’t really accomplish anything and just robs from the present with some hope of future benefit that may or may not ever come.

So consider this, even if it feels controversial to do so:  Some things should not be waited upon until they are, or feel affordable. If you do so, oftentimes you’re not taking advantage of that thing when you need it the most! Here are a few examples:

The kitchen:

On our homestead, the kitchen is command central. Like many, we’ve used odds and ends for kitchen gear. Frugality has prevented us from investing in the nicer things we’ve really enjoyed. That is, until recently it occurred to us… if ever there were a time to have the best kitchen stuff, it would be now, at the time in life when we use it the most! When the kids are grown and on their own, we might be more able to afford those things but will have far less occasion for their use. That just doesn’t make sense! So, we’ve been investing in higher-quality kitchen items that hopefully will make the next twenty years of meal preparation, canning, and freezing much much better. That isn’t to say that quality cannot be obtained inexpensively, it sure can, but that is the exception more than the rule in our experience.

The workshop:

I grew up in a home we always had what I’d call “Big Lots tools” – the kind of tools that one finds in the checkout line at the drugstore. You know, ratchets that freely spin no matter what direction you attempt and hammers with handles the size of your pinky. We never had good tools!

While I’m on that subject… As a newlywed back in the day, it bugged me that people threw wedding showers for the ladies and showed them with every manner of implement for their new home, yet few men did this for the fellas. It would have been awesome to have a tool shower as a newlywed man. A time and place to give a guy the stuff he’ll need to look after some of the DIY needs he’ll encounter. Let’s start a new tradition of showering new families with all sorts of stuff they’ll need!

A while back, it also occurred to us… homesteading is a very tool-intensive, and resource-intensive endeavor. There is almost always something to fix or build. What sense does it make to choose frugality over quality when it comes to equipping your homestead with the best tools for those jobs? This is one of those cases, where hyper-frugality can work against your homestead. If you aim to be homesteading a long time, buy the absolute best tools you can manage and as many of the tools you’ll need as you can manage. Same goes for a good work area. We regretfully didn’t build a good workshop until four plus years into our endeavor. I’ve since kicked myself for making those four years exceedingly cumbersome when a work area would have really made that time much more efficient.

In summary, don’t be afraid to invest, even heavily, into the core operations of your home and homestead. It might feel really scary to plunk down some serious money on such things, but it will reap dividends.

A simple, strong materials rack for the workshop

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I like to keep my materials up and outta the way, mostly because I am a procrastinator and don’t get to things right away (I’ve been thinking about changing, but…. I haven’t gotten to it yet).

I wanted something simple and durable. So I just picked up a few 3/4″ pipe flanges, a few sections of 3/4″ x 12″ pipe, and a few caps. I didn’t want to wait until I could get some pipe insulation because in addition to being a procrastinator, I’m also impatient (which means I can’t wait to stop procrastinating), so I opted to repurpose a pool noodle with a coordinating color for the purpose.

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I just cut this to lenght with my pocket knife, cut a slit down the middle, then secured each pipe flange to a stud using one 3-1/2″ exterior grade screw and one 4 1/2″ lag screws (that I already had). I wouldn’t try to hoist an engine off of these, but they seem plenty strong for holding misc materials.

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One note: I would recommend cleaning the pipes off with a good degreaser prior to use, it will make for much less mess and grime.

 

Don’t forget beauty on your homestead

One thing that has often bugged us with many homesteading approaches is what we would call a¬†hyper-practical approach that many employ. We sometimes refer to this as ‘pallet homesteading’ because of the widespread practice among this crowd of fashioning damn-near everything out of pallets. Pallet buildings, fencing, furniture, etc. Now before you flame us as being anti-pallet, realize that we DO use them!

Here is a pallet chicken coop (before we finished it) on our own property…

 

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Our pallet chicken coop

 

Like many homesteaders, we enjoy resourcefulness, upcycling, etc. – however… we’re not into a homestead that looks straight out of the Great Depression, especially so we can feel like some sort of hero for having saved $10. If we were living during such a time, and that is the best we could do, fine, but for the moment, thankfully we aren’t. Look for a separate post or two from us regarding our thoughts on hyper-frugality.

One of our favorite authors, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms¬†writes that farming and the production of food should be aesthetic pleasing, aromatic, sensual and even romantic pleasure. We would agree! We would summarize all those things as “beauty” and where possible aim to make our homestead as beautiful as possible. To some this is vain, for us, it’s about joy. We are here all the time and want to enjoy where we live. Investing in your home and property – even in what feels superficial, can be a very good and noble thing to do.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so for some, that may result in pallet homesteading, old tires for garden beds, and the like. If that’s your thing, go for it. Our point isn’t to discourage frugality or resourcefulness. Rather, our encouragement is: don’t¬†forget beauty in the process of homesteading.

Hopefully, you’re going to be homesteading for a long time¬†and live where you live for a long time. Someone will inherit your space after you. Don’t be stingy, invest in the beautiful on your homestead, even if it doesn’t directly result in food in the pantry or¬†freezer. For many, this will be hard and may require revolutionizing your worldview, especially if you gravitate towards being stingy. In our experience, this can be harder for men than women. Men might want to give their gals a new casserole dish for a special occasion¬†when their gal would much rather have flowers or an updated garden bed. Beauty is important!

Let us encourage you with this… beauty feeds the soul, first and foremost, the souls living on your homestead – including your own! Secondly, it will feed the souls of those who will visit your homestead. Beauty creates warm, welcoming, and hospitable places to welcome the weary, including yourself. A beautiful homestead delights your soul and brings health to your bones. It’s nice to look with pleasure on your land after a long hard day of working in the garden or orchard. Invest in it!

 

The $2, 20-minute neck-breaking prevention for icy homesteads

Where we live in northern Pennsylvania, winter is some combination of snow, rain, muck and ice. We occasionally see some sunshine in there too!

Mud and ice make for miserable homesteading conditions. Whether it’s navigating steep and slick terrain to cut firewood, or taking care of livestock on icy mornings, opportunities abound for slipping and injury.

We’ve tried shoe spikes that we pull on and pull off, but they are clunky, expensive, and prone to jettisoning off our boots when we’re not looking, and I’ve got better things to do than search 25 acres of woods for a missing shoe spike, especially if that means hopping on the remaining spiked foot!

At our house, Muck Boots¬†(what I like to call “homesteader flip-flops”) can be found in abundance. Since they cost so much, we hate to throw them out when we get a new pair.

Since we don’t need serious traction all the time, we’ve opted to turn our old much boots into Mad Max-styled, all-traction homesteading boots – and we’ve done so for very little investment. These things have some wicked-good traction!

The solution is simple and requires about 20 minutes, a bag of 1/2″ hex-head sheet metal screws, a screwdriver, and some old footwear (unless you don’t mind taking the screws out at winter’s end). Some slick surfaces for testing might also help.

We’ve found that hex heads work the best¬†because there is a tiny lip around the edges that provides the bulk of the traction.

 

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We use about a 1/2″ to 5/8″ sheet metal screw with a hex head.

 

 

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Notice the hex heads have a lip around the outside. This seems to make all the difference for traction. They’re like mini ice spike.

 

The process is simple. Using an appropriate screwdriver, just press slightly into the rubber sole of your boots and begin to turn the screwdriver. It will begin to bite into the rubber sole and once it does, just screw it in until the head of the screw comes to rest on the sole of the boot. There is no need to over-tighten. You’ll need to routinely replace an occasional screw as it is.

 

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The effort is pretty minimal to get these to go into muck boot soles. Upon removing them, the holes are hardly noticeable.

 

Pick whatever pattern you want. This is how I have mine:

 

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The pattern I use

 

These things are the bomb! We could run a sprint across a sheet of ice and not even think about slipping! Perfect for the icy days we encounter, and really helpful in most of the mud and muck we get as well!

You might be wondering… “will these poke through and stab my foot?” Well, we’ve not encountered that so far, even with kids boots. If you’re uncertain, start out by putting one or two in the heel and test it out. Proceed with a few more at a time, testing them along the way and see how they feel.

You might also be wondering… “will the holes let the water and muck into the boots?”. We’ve not encountered this yet. It doesn’t appear that the holes are deep enough for such, which is also why they probably cannot be felt.

You might consider adding in a glue of sorts of you’re super-concerned about water infiltration, or screws coming out. We’ve not felt the need but could see where it might be helpful.

 

Are we “Survivalists”?!

Did the title of this post catch your attention? Good. Many, many people sneer at the thought of being a “survivalist” – or “prepper” and not without cause. Many are turned off by paranoid proclamations of doom and gloom and the accompanying encouragement to run for the hills, store up food and water, heavily arm themselves, etc.

Then there is the sustainable homesteading crowd. For some, those words might conjure up images of venturing out west on a covered-wagon train, eating cornbread and beans over a campfire as you hand-clear a hundred acres of raw wilderness with an ax and saw.

“Sustainable Homesteading” – might conjure up other pictures of a bunch of dreadlock-sporting granola types howling at the moon and dancing around a drum circle.

We sometimes get curious looks or inquiries about ourselves. Are we “preppers” or “survivalists” or “homesteaders”, “farmers” perhaps? It’s a difficult question to answer without some explanation.

We would propose that if one were to pursue one of these things, in time they’ll become the others – at least in part.

Now we’re not saying that if you try growing your own vegetable garden, you’ll¬†end up living in a bunker with 25 years of freeze-dried food. ¬†It’s just that the path to being sustainable followed far and long enough, is likely to result in you being a pretty good survivalist whether you want to or not. Likewise, the journey of a well-thought-out survivalist is going to eventually lead toward a life of sustainability.

Why is this?

Because you cannot be/do one without the other. In order to be sustainable, one must be able to provide for a need indefinitely without exhausting all their resources in doing so. So for example, to be sustainable regarding food, one must be able to provide an ongoing, inexhaustible source of food without exhausting their means to keep doing so.

Hmmm… sounds exactly what a prepper or survivalist might ponder as they think about how to indefinitely provide food for themselves and their family in the event of an emergency or¬†disaster. In order to truly “survive” some scenarios, one would need to do so sustainably, or their survival would have an expiration date. That wouldn’t make for a very good survivalist!

To be survivable long-term requires being sustainable. If one is sustainable, they’ve provided continuity for doing what needs to be done for as long as it needs to be done. Those people, whether they like the name or not – are in some senses “survivalists”.

At the deepest level, someone pursuing sustainability is doing so because they want themselves or their environment to flourish despite whatever else is going on in the world. Nevertheless, many (including ourselves) don’t consider ourselves “survivalists”. We would prefer the term “thrivalists”, because what we do, we do to thrive, not to survive. What is the point of the latter without the former?

Why bring all this up? Because the journey to simple, by nature, is a movement toward being sustainable. This entails reducing dependencies on systems and resources that are without and managing those within to the best of your ability. If we can’t keep doing what we do, we haven’t accomplished all that much.

A survivalist might do things because they expect systems to fail. A thrivalist does them because a life that is not contingent upon these things is not enslaved to such things.

The great news is, as one becomes more sustainable, they’re prepared for times if and when those systems and resources ever become unavailable. That’s exactly what the survivalist hopes to accomplish and that is what the sustainable homesteader aims for as well. For us, we’ll stick with “thrivalist” since no other term does justice to our intentions.

 

The shelf-life of money

Money, as we know it, is quite an illusion. Think about it. We place extreme value on very complex pictures printed on special paper. We live, work, and die to accumulate this treasure that is really no treasure at all, but worthless resources. We cannot eat money, it cannot make us healthy. It cannot keep us warm (unless burned) and cannot keep us dry or secure. Does money let us purchase items that will give us those things? Sure. However, that’s based on an assumption that money will always have the value we place on it today. What happens if and when we no longer value dollars as having value?

As we’ve said before, the path to sustainability also prepares one for weathering difficult times. It’s with that understanding that we propose to you that you think long and hard about this thing called money. Many people will think nothing about storing three months of money in their bank accounts, yet won’t have three months of food on hands. They’ll be very proud of their investments, but have no way to secure clean water in an emergency. Money has no value when people collectively experience hardship. At that point, money is the enemy of sustainability. For many, money is the enemy of their sustainability even now. These are perilous ways to view money. Money is a tool that has an expiration date. It must be used in order to have value.

Are we saying doom and gloom is headed our way? No. We don’t know what the future holds. However, we do know, that our understanding of money depends on the combined support and interest of our culture. If that stops due to a change of mind, calamity, disaster, or any other reason, those with money will find themselves empty handed. We’re not saying don’t have money or don’t invest. But be wise! First invest in tangible resources first that will allow you to sustain your lives and others around you. Many do not to this to their potential peril and destruction.

Many who understand the above just go out and buy gold and silver. Are those things bad? No. However, just like money, they have limited value to the beholder. When the essentials to life are hard to come by, no amount of gold and silver is going to be worth trading food, water and shelter. Don’t misunderstand, we do think precious metals have their place in sustainable living¬† and are far, far better than dollars. However, they too stop short of preparing a family to live sustainably now and in the future.

I our opinion, money is best used to secure useful resources and eliminate debt than it is to secure and store. Kinda like the old fable “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush”. Money in the bank is only good as long as it can be used for what you need. If you’re lacking essential resources to live for several months or more without the need of purchasing supplies, then you might want to consider using your money more effectively. Get out of debt. Get the supplies to take care of you and your family.

Many will see this as unwise. Oh well! We’re hoping that many will consider these words and think about their future. If we can help, drop us a line.

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.

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