A meandering blog with no clear topic. You will find me talking about knitting, building, kids, social and economic issues, Alaska, and lots of other stuff.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

utilities... the dilemma

OK, so the following dilemma we are trying to solve may sound weird to some people that read this blog. The answer, according to some of you will probably be, but of course you should. And the answer, according to some of you, will probably be, but of course you shouldn't. But I don't know.

You see, currently we live in a small (950 sq ft) cabin. We built this as a temporary home until we could get our house built. Since then, we have been vacillating back and forth over whether to actually build the real house, or just figure out a way to add on to the cabin, but we are right now leaning towards building the house. The cabin just was not built with the idea of making it last the rest of our lives, and it likely won't.

So now, the current debate is, if we build the house, should we plan on wiring and plumbing the house for modern utilities. We have already decided that we are going to continue to heat solely with wood, so that is not at issue currently. What is at issue is cooking, water, and electricity.

  • Electricity. Right now, we have no electricity, although the cabin was wired for it. We use LED lanterns and a propane lantern for lighting. This is not an issue in the summer, when we don't even need a light if we wake up in the middle of the night. But in the deep part of winter, it is a bit challenging, and we went through 2 or 3 12-packs of D batteries and 2 or 3 small tanks of propane this winter. This also means that we don't have a fridge. We have been keeping things that have to stay cold in the arctic entry, which actually has been working very well. But that doesn't work in the summer, and last summer, we had a cooler outside that we kept full of ice from the store. The electric company wants $25,000 to get electricity to our property line, and our house will sit at least 150 feet back from the road. It would be extremely expensive to get traditional electricity to our home. In addition, solar power would probably not be a terrific option, since there are only a few short hours of light in the winter, and the sun stays extremely low in the sky. It would be great in the summer, though. We don't have a steady enough wind in our spot to make a windmill feasible, and we have no little stream for microhydro power. So, what do we do? Do we spend a fortune on electricity, or do we find alternative ways of living so that it is not necessary? There are ways to do that. For example, we have a north facing hill at the back of our property. We could dig into that, and make an ice house, where we could make ice all winter long, and pack it in straw or sawdust, that would likely stay frozen all summer if we insulate the door well, and keep the door closed. We could then store anything that has to stay cold in that. For me, light is the biggie. I really don't want to resort to candles or oil lamps, and I hate using so many batteries. The biggest benefit of electricity to me is to be able to flip a switch and have safe, sufficient light. If we could get LED or compact flourescent lighting, and were diligent about only having one or two lights on at a time, I don't know if we could generate enough solar power to run them. Also, in the summer, with solar panels, we could certainly generate enough electricity to run a high efficiency washer, but what about in the winter? Would I be washing clothes by hand? We currently use a laundromat, but that is certainly not a permanent, sustainable solution.

  • Water. The only running water is into and out of our kitchen sink. We have no hot water except what we heat on the stove. We have been planning to dig a well for our water supply. Luckily, this area has plentiful water, but because we are on the top of a hill, our well will have to be about 110 feet deep. Without electricity, that is a lot of distance to pump water by hand. In addition, it gets very cold in the winter. It got down to -35 this winter. We would have to find a way to keep the wellhead/pump from freezing. I know they have frost proof hand pumps, but will it work at -35? I don't know. The other option is to collect rainwater in a cistern. It rains a lot in Alaska in the summer, but would we be able to collect enough water from runoff on our roof to supply us all year? I think we would have to be extremely water conscious, and a dry year could be disasterous. Of course, if we get electricity, we can have an electric, underground pump for our well, and this would all be moot. The other water issue is waste. Right now, we are doing an impromtu composting toilet (such as desribed in the Humanure Handbook)Even though Alaska has plentiful water, it bothers me that we use so much perfectly clean drinking water to get rid of poop. We either have to figure out a way to use greywater to flush with, or consider composting toilets, also a great source of fertilizer, if you are careful.

  • Cooking. Cooking is currently managed by propane. We have a gas range converted to propane and it works quite well, including the oven, without any electricity. In fact, I like it better than an electric range. However, I am concerned about the supply of propane. I have said before that I think we are coming to a crisis point in the oil supply. Right now, it doesn't seem like much of a threat, because this economic collapse has lessened the demand for oil to a point that there is currently a supply surplus. But, as production inevitably declines, and demand gradually increases again, prices will go up, and availability will go down. I don't expect to be able to acquire or afford propane to cook with indefinitely. SO... do I put an electric range in the new house? Or, do I put a wood cookstove in the new house? I guess that all goes back to whether we get electricity or not.

So, all in all, it seems like electricity is a good thing. But again, I worry about future availability. As the economy continues to collapse, and resources become increasing scarce, what will happen? I think remote areas will gradually lose services, as it becomes more cost prohibitive to provide services to them. Already this is happening in rural villages across Alaska that never got a sufficient fuel or food supply for the winter. And what has the government been able to do to help? Talk about it in the state legislature saying what a shame it is. That sure gets people warm and fed. I don't want that to happen to my family. That is why I advocate growing a garden and that is why I am considering other ways of meeting our needs besides relying on the grid longterm.

So, yes, I am actually considering a wood cookstove, and yes, I am considering building an ice house, and yes, I heat solely with wood. And I have a supply of stored food, and I am trying a garden again this year.

Comments, ideas, critiques, PLEASE. And if I do opt to put in the electricity, what backups would be most workable? What do you think?


Meadowlark said...

From the useless chick who uses electricity and thinks a bathtub exists because I don't have a hottub:

GO OFFGRID! Only because it sounds like the mini-cabin could utilize the grid if necessary. And not that I'm a total "peak oil chick", but better safe than sorry.

And Greenpa hasn't had a fridge in 30 years. Who needs a fride?

{walking to fridge to get a cold beer as she types. But has enough sense to hang head in shame.}

Knit2dye4 said...

Thanks, Meadowlark. I read greenpa (http://littlebloginthebigwoods.blogspot.com/) religiously, as least as much as possible when his computerus is deadus. LOL. He is certainly proof that it can be done. I wish he read my blog, so I could get input from him on this.


Meadowlark said...

Go ask. The worst he can say is "don't have time" "don't care to" "that's your problem" "computer is still dead". One of those.

jewishfarmer said...

Greenpa will definitely answer your questions.

My thoughts, for what they are worth (maybe not much):

1. 25K+ is a crazy huge amount of money. I'd avoid it if at all possible. A couple of possibilities.

1. Are wind or microhydro possibilities where you are? Do you have enough wind or a year round water supply with sufficient drop?

2. If you did go offgrid, how much can you invest in it. For example, if you could afford both a cistern underground (which would allow you to pump water directly into the house, if properly placed, so you wouldn't have to go outside) and a frost free pump and perhaps a small pumphouse (to up the chances it won't freeze, and also perhaps provide refrigeration - your water comes out of the ground at a nice, cool, fridge temp, if you were willing to replace it a couple of times a day, and had a shady, enclosed space to do it, you could keep food there (or perhaps you could combine with the ice house).

3. For cooking, I'd recommend a wood cookstove, which will contribute to heating your home and allow you to cook indoors in the cooler weather. You could keep propane for the summer, or work on outdoor firepits and solar ovens - maybe both, with the latter as a backup.

4. Lighting seems the hardest choice for you - but it seems crazy to spend 25K for a few lights. Can you use rechargeable batteries at all, maybe by charging when you drive? Or do you not drive? What about building a human powered charger, say from an old exercise bike? The ecological impact of all the heavy equipment used to get you lights is lower than CF and LED lighting, even with disposable batteries, IMHO.

Just my .02, fwiw.

Sharon Astyk

Meadowlark said...

Do you ever get the chills when you realize someone famous read your blog? WOW! And see... I totally knew Greenpa would be a resource.

(I'm such a doof)

Apple Jack Creek said...

You might consider breaking your 'should we wire the house for electricity' and 'should we bring in power' into two separate questions.

Putting the wires throughout the house so that you *can* have wired in light fixtures and a few electrical outlets won't cost you a lot of money if you do it while you are building. Then, later, if you bring in grid power or set up an off-grid system, your house has what it takes to make use of it.

We are in northern Alberta so we get more light than you but winter is definitely a low-light season. We have solar panels and a currently-broken wind generator for supplemental power, although we are grid tied and use that for about half to two thirds of our electricity, depending on season.

I would wire the house and make sure you have a spot where you could put a large inverter and some batteries, and/or bring in grid power. We actually didn't have grid power at first as the power company estimate was almost as much as a solar system would cost, so we went solar. Some of the smaller 'cabin sized' solar systems might make good sense for you, even if you can't use 'em all year, it sure is nice to have lights at the flip of a switch even SOME of the time. And, in summer, you might have enough juice for the chest freezer with thermostat trick (we use one, it takes very little power). In the winter, the world is your deep freeze, so doing the ice packs to the fridge trick would be super simple for you.

You might also want to reconsider adding on to your existing cabin, if the layout allows. We had life circumstances that changed and needed way more room (got married and acquired two step kids as well as the husband!) and what we did was build a new house that is 'attached' to the existing house via a hallway. They are two full houses, and could be self-contained if need be. It means you can live in both while the new one's under construction, and have access to both spaces afterwards. Depending on how your land and cabin are set up, it might be worth contemplating - it's nice to re-use infrastructure if possible.

I have no real thoughts on your water situation ... not enough experience there (we have a well with a traditional electric pump, but since we have solar power, we can always get SOME water, even if it means rationing carefully). For cooking, I'd go with the proper cookstove and maybe an outdoor cob oven/barbecue setup (my grandparents had this awesome outdoor barbecue built from bricks that I have fond memories of!).

Knit2dye4 said...

OMG! Maybe I am a dork, but I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that Sharon commented on my blog. That means that she read my blog! This totally made my day. Sharon, did you realize that some of us think of you as a celebrity? LOL.


Knit2dye4 said...

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
1. I agree that 25K+ is insane. I really don't want to go there.
2.No stream. We do get wind, but not reliably enough for a windmill, I don't think. Solar is probably the best option for electricity, and it is iffy in the winter, when we most need light.
3. I like the idea of a cozy kitchen in the winter. Is it a difficult learning curve?
4. I haven't looked into rechargable batteries, but I do want to check into it before this coming winter. I don't particularly like our current arrangement, but it has worked, at least marginally.
I think the whole thing that is bugging me, is that we are building this house with the express intention of having it work for us for the rest of our lives. For example, we designed it with the master bedroom on the ground floor so that we don't have to move out if our knees give out. Therefore, whatever arrangements we make for the various chores of living, I want to be workable now and in a likely more difficult, more energy and consumer good constrained future. I don't want to rely on the future availability of propane or batteries to be able to cook my food or see what I am doing after 3:00 pm in the winter. Right now, I am 39 and somewhat resilient, I think. When I am 69, I expect that I will be much less so.


homebrewlibrarian said...

Sharon reads your blog! WOW! That is so incredibly cool! I'm doing a happy dance and I wasn't the one who got the comment!

As for energy resources, to make wind work you'd have to raise it up at least 35 ft, probably more, above the tops of your trees. As I recall, you have lots of tall spruce trees on most of your property. You need to check into any height restrictions (probably none where you live) but also where airstrips and airports are located.

You've got one cleared area that is pretty sunny in the summer but not near the cabin. You'd have to factor in the costs of burying the cables when looking at putting in solar. Unfortunately, everything I hear about solar in Alaska is not positive. It seems to be something people with lots of money do because they can - there aren't enough clear, sunny and correctly positioned sun angle days in the year for the cost. On the other hand, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks has been studying this sort of thing for years and I'd suggest you look into their research for guidance.

While $25K is an obscene amount of money, it's entirely possible that someone else will move in along your proposed transmission route and be willing to fork over the money to get it to THEIR house. That will get it closer and therefore cost you less should you decide to connect to the grid. It's a wait and see suggestion but you never know. It could happen.

Here's my suggestion: WWTAD

What Would The Amish Do?

I realize that its a way of life from birth to death for them but they've been successfully living and prospering for generations without electricity. I suspect that they don't stay up too late after it gets dark (unless there's a situation that warrants it). They also gather together in the light that they do have and do everything at the same time. I'd suggest that you have the kids do their homework at school before they head home (if possible) since there's ample light there.

In my own experiments with using alternative light sources, my results were mixed. A headlamp works okay for some things but you'll blind each other if everyone is wearing them. And then there's the battery issue. Candles work but you have to have a lot of them and then put reflectors behind them. I don't have reflectors other than quickie ones made from aluminum foil so my results aren't all that spectacular. I didn't have any oil or kerosene lamps so I don't know how well they would do. I'd suggest perusing the Lehman's catalog (oh, like you needed an excuse) for lighting suggestions.

How I coped with no electric lights? I ended up going to bed pretty early which wasn't a bad thing. I found that I couldn't get enough light from what I had on hand to do any kind of hand work although I could do some reading. I don't know what sorts of things your family tries to get done before bedtime but maybe you should think about how to shift some of that stuff to other parts of the day and just go to bed earlier in the winter. Lord knows that most Alaskans don't get a whole lot of sleep in the summer so why not get it in the winter?

I'm not sure any of that is helpful but that's what came to mind.


Mom said...

For your information, I still expect to be running up and down the stairs at 69. That is only 14 years away. As I have told you before, if the day comes that you think you need to take care of me up in AK, you will have to drag me out of a Key West bar in a staight jacket. BTY, You will probably find me in The Hogs Breath Salon.

But on building a house to live in all your life. That is a nice plan, but also remember the only constant in life is change. Don't kill the resale value by not putting in wiring, even if you don't connect. You might just decide to join me in Key West.

Love, Mom

Mom said...

And if you don't find me in Key West I might be in French Quarter in N'Orleans, or maybe San Fransico.