Ed Essex

Ed Essex

Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:00

Calulate your electrical needs

When you talk to people about going off grid most of the questions they ask are about solar power. Everyone wants to know how much it costs and how do you figure out what size system to put in?

How many panels? Are you going to have batteries and if so how many? Oh and how much does it cost?

If you are thinking of going off grid you are going to ask the same questions and it doesn’t matter whether you are going to have solar power,  a wind turbine, or a water powered hydro generator.

In order to size any of the above systems you are first going to have to calculate your electrical needs. Until you do that you can’t have an intelligent conversation about what type of system or what size system you are going to need or how much it is going to cost.

There are whole books written on this subject so I am just going to share the actual steps we took to figure out what our power needs would be.

The first thing I did was read the book Solar Power for Dummies. I’m not kidding. What did I know about off grid power systems?  One book led to another and there was a fair amount of time spent on the Internet researching as well.

In all the research, one simple tool stood out time and again in slightly different formats but similar in nature and practical use. It was a chart which listed all of your typical electrical appliances with their associated wattage and how much time you used each appliance each day. A sample is worth 1000 words so you can click here to see one Power Use Spreadsheet.  I created this one on Excel so that I could enter the formulas to make it automatically calculate the watts per day. On this spreadsheet all you have to do is write down the appliance and figure out how long it will run each day and how many watts it uses.

Some of our appliances only listed amps not watts and there is a simple conversion formula for that too. Watts = Volts X Amps. If your stereo is rated at 3 amps and you plug it into an 110v wall outlet then just multiply 3 x 110 = 330 watts! You will find most watts or amp ratings somewhere on the appliance tag. If not, look up the appliance online and pull up the specification sheet or just use something similar. Remember this is an estimate and not an exact accounting.

When we were done our Spreadsheet looked like this – Essex Solar Use. Now we had something to talk about. This was the starting point to research what kind of system and how large a power system we would need. Your daily electrical use will determine the size of the system. We knew we needed something that produced at least 6 kWh per day in order to meet our needs

If we were going to go with solar power this information would tell us how large an inverter, how many solar panels, and how large a battery bank would be needed. If we went with wind turbines it would tell us how large a turbine and also the inverter and batteries for that system. The same would apply to hydro.

Notice that what appliances you decide to go with affect this chart. You can see right away you had better switch from an electrical stove and oven to propane or gas or wood. By creating this chart, this is where you start making lifestyle decisions about how you are going to live, where you are going to live,

It’s a very exciting exercise because you get to choose. You get to choose where to draw the line in every category of living – food, water, and shelter. We made a lot of choices that were different than the way we had been doing things and it made us feel really good to know we were doing a better job for us, our family, and the environment and the best part is, we didn’t have to give up anything to do it. We just made better choices. Research works. The technology is there.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013 17:00

Taking the Leap

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’ve got a friend who purchased land close to us. Like a lot of people he was curious about our solar setup and what it was like to live off the grid. Remember, my definition of living off grid is providing your own sewer, water, and power.

Many people have septic systems (sewer) and draw (water) from a well, spring or other body of water. Not many people go that third step to produce their own power. I wonder why?

I helped this friend of mine acquire a site analysis for solar exposure to see if he would be a candidate for a solar power system. His site wasn’t ideal (southern exposure all year long) but it was excellent for nine months out of the year and still pretty good those three short solar day months of November, December, and January.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableHe decided to bring traditional power in. At $10.00 per foot underground the total cost was over $22,000. That was just to get power to the house. Solar (in his case) would have been approximately $15,000 for a complete system installed. With public power he will have a monthly power bill. With solar he wouldn’t. Public power continues to climb in cost per watt. Solar is getting cheaper.

He would have to have a generator to help charge his batteries at times but out here everyone has a generator anyway for many reasons so the only extra cost to be compared here is the generator fuel. We all know that any kind of fuel is expensive but would it be enough to disqualify solar power as a good alternative? In his case probably not.

If you have read my other blogs you will know I live in a modern home with typical appliances. The only difference between our house and yours is the source of power –in our case the sun. Well, ok, there is another difference. Our power usage. For some reason, when you make your own power you automatically become more conservative in how much power you consume. Other than that, if you stayed in my home for a week you wouldn’t know it was being powered by the sun.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThere are a lot of options out there – sun, wind, and hydro. So why aren’t more people doing it? I think it’s because it’s different than what we were brought up with. Almost all of us have had public provided power all of our lives. We were born with it being available. We can all tell the same stories about being out of power for a few days, usually because of a storm. Whether you live in the city or country we’ve all grown up with power poles and power lines on the side of the road.

Change is difficult and for some, just plain scary. I understand human nature and for the most part I was skeptical, just like many of you. That being said, there is now so much information at your public library or bookstore, Internet and even TV, that there really is no excuse not to be well informed about alternative power. Articles from scientists at NASA to the simplest online blog from people who are living with alternative energy are available to anyone who wants to take the time to read them. Educate yourself and become informed.

Ultimately it will probably be economics that will be the driving force to changing where we get our energy from. When solar, wind,  individual hydro systems, or something else entirely, become more cost effective than the more traditional means we use today then change will certainly occur. That has already happened to some extent. In the meantime some of us are pioneering the way, one watt at a time.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012 17:00

Spring To Do List

We might have called this blog “after the snow leaves” instead of spring. At elevation 4200’ spring is a pretty short season. We don’t see the end of snow until the end of April and then it seems spring is only visible during the day for another month because it still freezes at night. It’s not just the snow. We have to wait for the ground to thaw as well. In short we really don’t get to go to work outside until sometime in May and by that time the “to do” list is pretty long.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs you can see by previous blogs we are already growing vegetables before spring even gets here.

We need to get the boat and gear ready for trout fishing because they only seem to bite in late May and early June and then again in the fall. We rely on those fish for part of our pressure canned food supplies we stock our pantry with the year round. Besides fishing is fun and after a long winter being cooped up it is time for something different.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe garden has to get re-leveled and roto tilled. That takes two different days before it is ready to plant. We got ours done May 15 and 16 this year. After that it is time to plant. Our garden is pretty good sized so planting is an ongoing process throughout May and June.

There always seems to be fence to repair. The deep snows tend to do the most damage to our fences every year.

We clean our chimneys of creosote and the masonry heater as well. Then we shut it down until October. We have to clean the stone face with vinegar and water.

When the ground freezes deep enough some of our gutter tight line drains freeze as well. We have to take the downspouts off and hook up temporary drains for when the snow melts off the roof all winter long. So once the ground is thawed we have to remove the temporary drains and put the downspouts back on so we can catch rainwater for our cisterns.

It’s a good time to run vinegar through the tankless hot water lines to get any mineral deposit buildup out of those lines.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe can’t forget one of our bigger tasks is wood cutting. I cut the trees down in the fall to get them to start curing and in May we start cut, split, and stack the wood. All six cords. We may not burn that much but I like to have extra just in case. You really want to get this work done before it gets too hot.

The horses, cats, and dog all need extra grooming because they are all shedding their winter coats.

Much of the equipment has been sitting all winter and the tires need to be refilled with air. I maintain all of my equipment in the fall before winter so it is ready to go on the spring but the tires still need air from sitting so long.

The winter hay area needs to be cleaned and organized. Mouse traps set in the barn when it warms up. For that matter we also usually clean the barn.

I spend about two days repairing our three mile long road from the winter thaw damage. That work is a timing issue. It has to be done after the thaw but while it is still damp and before it dries out and turns to moon dust.

It’s a good time to clean and rearrange the pantry. Take inventory of what is left over and what we will need to replenish our supplies.

This year we have to make arrangements to leave for a few days to attend the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA on June 2, and 3rd. That only adds to our hectic spring schedule but we will find a way because we really want to go to the Fair.

All in all it is a pretty busy time for us. We have these things to do as well as our “day jobs” and running our two websites. It’s a lot of work but it’s what we chose. Why is a whole ‘nother blog.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Sunday, 29 April 2012 17:00

Snow Removal

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWinter is OVER. Spring is here. Aren’t we going backwards to talk about winter now? Not really. Now is the time some folks are getting ready to build and there are a few things they may need to know before they start and one of those things involves snow removal. Besides, some of these pictures were only taken a few weeks ago and I want to show them to you.

Some people living off grid never see any snow. Others like us get a fair amount. We live about 3 miles from the nearest paved road and that means we have to take care of our own snow removal, not only on our immediate property but also the 3 miles to pavement. From that point on the local County or State handles the snow removal quite well.

We did a lot of research on a lot of new things before we went off grid. We mostly got it right but we did have a few regrets. One of those is not keeping a clear distance all the way around the house for snow removal equipment.

I have solar panels, cisterns, and satellite dishes on one end of the house that are too close to the house to get my tractor and plow in for snow removal so it all has to be done by hand. I have a metal roof on my house so usually on the first sunny day after a snowfall we are going to have the snow come off the roof and pile up just below the eave.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI could leave it there but if you do, it will melt in the sun and then freeze at night and eventually become solid ice. At that point it is a lot of hard work to get it out. I believe it is best to keep the immediate area around the house clear of snow.  I have gutters on my roof, footing drains below grade, and the ground is all sloped away from the house but even with that you can acquire water problems if you allow the snow to build up under the eaves.

In a fast thaw that built up pile of snow will melt and you can accumulate water between it and the house and if the ground is frozen that water has no place to go. It can eventually pond up against your siding or enter the crawl space or even become higher than your concrete slab (floor) if you have one. All in all it is just a good idea to keep the snow from accumulating at the house.

That one end of the house is all I have to do by hand. The rest is accessible with my tractor and plow. I use it to keep the snow away from the house and all of the roads on the property. I usually plow when it gets 5” deep or more. If the snow is dry it doesn’t matter how deep it is. It is easy to remove or “plow to the side”. If the snow is wet and heavy it becomes much more difficult. Any more than 5” in depth and the snow will pile up on the side of the road so high that it can overwhelm the plow by putting too much pressure on the heavy (snow piled) end of the plow. I broke my plow the first year and had to have it reinforced and welded. Wet snow can produce a lot of force against the plow so that is why I don’t let it get too deep before I start clearing snow.

I would love to have a snow blower but the three miles of road I have to keep clear is called Big Boulder Lane for a reason and I just don’t have the confidence that I could plow my road without damaging a snow blower on a rock. It would only be a matter of time.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI also discovered that first year that weight would be a factor in plowing. I have a 4×4 55 horsepower tractor which is pretty good size. I even filled the rear tires with liquid to give it more weight and stability on the hillside we live on. It weighs about 7,000 pounds. That wasn’t good enough. I was sliding all over the place with an 8’ wide plow. I had to get chains and they were expensive but when you are the only source to get back and forth from the house to the highway, you need to make sure you have a really good snow removal machine and so I got the chains. What a difference they made! Without them I was having trouble keeping the blade where I wanted and even getting back up some of the steeper hills. Now I go exactly wherever I point the plow and can even plow uphill so nothing is wasted. I plow to the left going down the hill and plow to the left again going back up. I’ve cut my time down to where I can plow the 3 miles of road in just 2.5 hours!

I know what you are thinking – why doesn’t he get a plow for his truck and stay nice and warm? Well, it is a good question. I don’t have any experience with a truck type plow but I can’t believe it would do as good a job as a 6 way tractor mounted blade that I can control instantly up or down, tilted or angled, all on a road that is rough and full of rocks. Visibility was the biggest reason I went this route. With a truck plow on pavement or a nice graveled road you can just drop it down and go. You can’t do that on this road. It’s just too rough and bumpy for a plow that you can‘t really see the bottom of the blade and what is going on. Anyway, right or wrong I made my decision and so far we are doing well with it. I can still handle a few hours outside however I do reserve the right to change my mind as I get older!

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Saturday, 13 October 2012 17:00

Rodent Wars

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThis blog could be a little squeamish for some. It involves the constant battle of all kinds of little animals when you build in their territory. Pack rats, squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and mice in our case. They do the most damage. Then we have to watch out for weasels, hawks, and coyotes that seem to have a taste for free range chicken.

When Laurie and I first started looking for property in this area we were just driving around one day when we saw a guy coming out of his driveway on a backhoe. I stopped the truck and flagged him down when he came out onto the road. I introduced ourselves to him and asked him if he would mind answering a few questions about the area. We talked for a while and then he said “if I was going to give you guys just one piece of advice this would be it – you think these little creatures are cute and they are, but they are also very destructive”. He then went on to warn us that he had suffered over $3,000 in damage his first year in his new home. Mostly from squirrels that got into his garage and house attic. Most of the damage was in the garage. Torn up insulation and wiring. He had to remove the sheetrock on the walls and ceilings to make the repairs. Some electronic equipment was also damaged. An expensive lesson for all. I appreciated his advice.

After we bought our property the first building we put up was the barn. I had a lot of extras added like 6” of insulation in the ceiling along with a Simple Saver insulation cover which is a reinforced white vinyl used in ceilings to hold the insulation up into the rafters. Usually you just have 1½” white vinyl faced insulation in the ceiling but we wanted to be able to heat the building in the winter.

We had a trailer on the property at the time. I still remember that night. Driving 250 miles just to see our new barn. We pulled in just in time to get the keys from our builder as he was hauling the last cleanup load to the dump. Everything was shiny and new. Later I would put the concrete floor and the horse stalls in myself but for now it was beautiful, my first barn!

After spending the night in our trailer parked outside, we got up, had breakfast and went out to look at our new barn some more before we went to work on other things. I went inside and was horrified to see the insulation and simple saver cover at both ends of the peaked ceilings torn to shreds. At each wall plate, 16’ off the ground where the roof meets the walls there were four holes about 6” – 8”m long – on BOTH sides of the barn. Our Polaris Ranger RV was parked inside. Some of the wiring was chewed and there were some kind of animal pellets everywhere. We found the same evidence in the outhouse and the woodshed about 100’ away. All the toilet paper in the outhouse was shredded and little pellets all over the floor and seat.

It turns out we had a packrat, our first night in our new barn. I had never seen one animal do so much damage. I went to town and got a packet of One Bite and went to work setting bait. I climbed up the ladder 16’ to place some bait next to one of the holes in the insulation. I just got to the top and was setting the bait in place when the stupid packrat stuck his head out of the hole just inches from my face. I almost went backward off the ladder he gave me such a start. Laurie was watching me and had to laugh at what occurred because it was funny but she did admit she was glad I didn’t fall.

That animal was pretty cute. It looked like a little Chinchilla but it had to go. It took the bait and the bait did its job. Two days later we got Mrs. Packrat as well. It bothered me to go after something as cute as these animals but they just had to go. It took a whole day to repair the damage not to mention the 50 miles round trip for materials.

Since then we have declared war on all kinds of small mammals and rodents. We have had further damage from ground squirrels, chipmunks, and mice. If they approach the barn, house, or garden they have to go. I don’t hesitate any more. We actually had a ground squirrel undermine a cut and fill bank of dirt in front of the barn. Over 100’ long and 4’ back from the edge, that whole section of bank collapsed and sank about 6”. These cute little animals can do a serious amount of damage.

We don’t do it lightly or with any pleasure and it is so unpopular with many people we just don’t bring it up in conversation but if you are going to build in an undeveloped area you need to know what you are getting into and that is why I’m willing to share the less attractive side of living the way we do.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Friday, 23 March 2012 00:00

Cell Phones

When Laurie and I first bought this property it was for recreational purposes. We weren’t too worried about phone service when we were camping but when we decided to make it our home we knew phones would be an issue. Not only do we run our business out of our home but safety services are a factor as well – fire, ambulance, and sheriff.

We knew there was a very weak signal within ¼ mile because the prior property owners would drive down the road to make calls on a cell phone. That’s fine for emergencies but we needed something better.

We live 3 miles from the nearest paved road. There are no services of any kind in this area. TV and computer are by satellite. None of the Skype (phone by computer) type services were offered in our area. That’s right, just because you have Internet service does not mean you can use it for telephone service. That was the first thing my research turned up.

Next I looked at a radio signal phone service I had read about in the Backwoods Solar handbook/catalogue. I called them to see if they knew the person they had mentioned in the book. I was given a website address but it was an old one apparently. I spoke with a Verizon Engineer who knew what I was talking about. It is a line of sight radio wave apparatus. You would have to put a pole up in the highway right of way and you would have to be able to see that pole from the house. Verizon would connect to it. It would send a radio signal to your house to a receiver that apparently you could talk into. The engineer also told me they were usually used for emergency phone services by the government. I could never locate the equipment or anyone who had done it before and finally eliminated this item as an option. Added to that I didn’t really want to go through the legal process of getting permission to put a pole in the right of way.

I found several websites that claimed to have the equipment to get you a cell signal in remote locations but after speaking with them about my actual circumstances they all admitted their products would not work.

In that research process I finally came up with the term cell phone amplifiers or cell phone signal boosters. I also learned – you can’t boost or amplify a signal that isn’t there. One thing led to another and I finally contacted a company in Utah called Wilson Electronics. Oddly enough the person that answered the phone used to manage a Radio Shack 15 miles from here and knowing the general cell service areas etc made a big difference because their biggest concerns are people who want to “pull a signal out of thin air” and that simply isn’t possible. Because this person knew our area he was hopeful we “might” get a signal.

I looked at all the online cell service “coverage maps”. Not helpful. According to them my area could not receive a signal. Because I knew there was one ¼ mile away and because the Wilson customer service guy was pretty positive I could get a signal I decided to try it. I bought a trucker antenna and a small 12volt vehicle amplifier that plugged into the Polaris or truck cigarette lighter. The only other condition was that I needed a phone with a little female receptacle that I could plug into the amplifier direct. They had wireless amplifiers but the customer rep assured me that I would do better with hard wire. Luckily my phone had such a plug in. Not all of them do.

I was able to receive 1 1/2 to 2 bars with this setup. I would stand outside holding the antenna in one hand and the phone in another and make calls – most of the time. That was about 5 years ago. Since then they have improved the equipment substantially

In my current home setup I have an outdoor antenna that has to be 30’ high. It is connected by coaxial cable to my original amplifier and another larger amp. Those are connected by coaxial cable to an indoor antenna in the house that sends a wireless signal to our cell phones. I get up to 5 bars. If you walk outside the house our phones get ZERO bars.

So how do you KNOW a cell phone signal booster will work for you? There is a trick I will share with you but you have to try this at your own risk. This trick took me a while to find but it works great. You need to figure out how to put your phone in “field test mode”. All cell phones have such a thing. Most manufacturers won’t tell you how to do it. I found instructions online for my phone. Some phones display the signal in dB and some in dBm. -51 is strong and -105 is no signal. My phone was at -90 which is pretty weak. With my two amplifiers I get 5 bars! Just remember that the lower the number the stronger the signal. In field test mode I found a weak signal. In regular mode there were no bars so field test mode is more sensitive to signal strength.

I just now googled “cell phone field test mode” and there is a lot of info online to help you get into test mode.

The online company that makes all of the products I’m talking about is wilsonelectronics.com. Put your phone in field test mode and get your signal strength. Take that number to Wilson on the phone and they can help you figure out which system would work best for you.

I found a Wilson Products independent dealer that also does installations for people. Because he sells and installs the products he is very knowledgeable. You can reach him at cellularoutlet.com, attention Robert.

The products are expensive but without them we wouldn’t be living here.

2017 UPDATE - Apparently a couple of years ago the FCC stepped in and changed the rules for cell phone amplifiers. My amplifiers are 3 watt. The new ones are 1 watt. The FCC will no longer allow the more powerful ones to be sold so everything on the market today is going to be considerably weaker than my system.

Also updated - the new smart phones - you can find the signal strength on the phone without having to use a special code to get inside. Mine is found under "phone system, status, signal strength".

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Friday, 20 July 2012 17:00

Livestock Guardian

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI saw an ad in the Spokane newspaper that read “Do you have trouble with raccoons, coyotes, bear, or cougar? We don’t.”

That had my attention. We live fairly remote in the mountains. Even though we can see the highway from our place, we only have one neighbor about ½ mile away and we aren’t exactly on good terms with each other. There is no cell phone service except inside our home. We are on our own – completely.

We have two horses and chickens that run free inside twenty fenced acres. There is no one to watch the house or animals when we leave. Two years ago there was a bear breaking into homes and recreational trailers and cabins and really tearing things up and causing a lot of damage. The Game Department gave me permission to shoot it as a nuisance bear but someone else did first, just 2 miles down the road. It had previously broken into our next door neighbor’s recreational trailer twice! They live about 250 miles away and come here a few times a year to camp and relax. Imagine how they felt – twice! That bear just tore their trailer to pieces.

We have coyotes, owls, weasels, and hawks cruising through here on a daily basis. Friends of ours have seen two wolves within 5 miles. Bear, bobcats and cougar are common. In short, our home and animals are unprotected whenever we aren’t home.

We weren’t interested in a dog that was aggressive by nature but we didn’t want one that would run from danger either. We looked around and researched guard dogs, watchdogs, regular dogs and everything in between. Two breeds caught my eye. The Estrala Mountain dog which originates in Portugal and the Anatolian Shepherd which originated in Turkey. When someone local advertised dogs that were 7/8 Anatolian and 1/8 Pyrenees mountain dogs we responded right away.

When we arrived at the kennels, about 2 ½ hours away, we were greeted with a sign that read “Warning, livestock guardians dogs at work. Please do not disturb.” I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that meant so I just drove into the yard real slow. The breeder was dashing around tying up dogs. I didn’t get out until she had them all constrained. They were big and loud. Just a little intimidating. Good so far – sort of I guess.

We looked at all their dogs. One male they showed us was about 95 pounds and had a couple of scars on his face and one ear. He had apparently done battle with a cougar and won! These dogs will defend to the death. A confrontation usually results in the wild animal quitting first because they need to stay healthy in order to feed themselves. If they get hurt they will die.

We were told the sire (father) to the litter we were looking at was 150 pounds. He didn’t look like it. The breeder told me to try to pick him up to see for myself but I passed. He was still barking. The grandfather was over 200 pounds. All I could think about was the food bill.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableFinally we got to see the puppies. Way better. Not so intimidating. Clumsy, happy, and lovable, they were pretty cute. Laurie seemed to be drawn to the runt. I’ve had runts before and they have been really good natured so we finally made our minds up and took him home. His name was Turk.

Livestock Guardian dogs are domesticated and make wonderful pets but only under strict circumstances. They were bred to protect sheep and goats from wolves in the mountains of Turkey. They live with the herds 24/7, not in some hut or home.  They not only will defend to the death but also help with lambing and such. They do whatever they can to care for their wards. They are not herding dogs.

One of the biggest attractions to me is the way they guard. Like I said earlier, we didn’t want an aggressive dog. When these dogs first see a threat they will stand up. Most often their size is enough to intimidate whatever predator they are watching. If that doesn’t deter, they give a little woof. If that doesn’t work they start barking and that IS intimidating. If that doesn’t do it they will start moving towards the threat. They mean business and they are fast. These animals are almost as fast as a greyhound.

I am not a dog expert. I am only sharing our experiences and research. These dogs are independent thinkers and not easily controlled. They have to be that way. Often where they come from there aren’t any owners to consult or tell them what to do. We did a lot of homework before we got Turk. I am a fairly experienced trainer (of birddogs) and still have a little difficulty with him when he is in guard mode.

On the one hand this dog is the sweetest dog I have ever owned. You almost never have to raise your voice. When it is bedtime he either goes in by himself or one of us will just say the word bed and he immediately goes into his room and goes to bed. No exceptions. It’s very cute.

But when he is on guard – when there is a threat, human or animal, it is a different story. We are working on it. We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to deter him in any way from doing his job but if we determine there is no threat and want him to calm down then that is what he needs to do.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableHe is progressing nicely. Turk was probably 6 months old before we heard him bark the first time. It scared me. I didn’t know that deep loud intimidating sound would come out of this ½ grown dog. Wow! That is another feature, they don’t bark unless there is something there. Nice. When company would come he used to bark and then run behind the house and pee. Now, at a little over one year old, he barks and goes toward the threat. Still a little nervous but not bad. They say this breed doesn’t get totally into guard mode until they are mature, 3-4 years old. It is also common to work them in pairs but Turk only has us to teach him. We are learning together and are both improving.

About that food bill? When they become mature they don’t eat hardly anything. They pick a high point and just lay there all day watching. You may even think they are sleeping but they’re not. Turk has learned to watch the road over a mile away. He lets a vehicle get to within about ½ mile and then lets us know they are coming. I love that feature. Plenty of time to either load my gun or make lemonade.

Recently Laurie and Turk were out walking and spooked a fawn. The fawn jumped up and they were off. Laurie ran after as fast as she could, horrified at the outcome. Finally the fawn stopped and lay down and Turk just danced around in circles, trying to get the little fawn to play – whew! They seem to instinctually know when something is a threat or not.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThis dog loves to play and needs his exercise. He also loves to run. More than any dog I ever had. He runs for the sheer fun of running. He loves to go way up the hill and then CHARGE! Down the hill as fast as he can go, paws pounding the earth and at the last second he swerves away from you, missing by inches. When he was younger he didn’t always miss. For that matter he didn’t always even get to you without tumbling head over heels. It was pretty funny. He is older now, more coordinated and very very fast. I would not want him to be after me.

A funny story about one of Turks brothers – when he was about 4 or 5 months old he ran a bear up a tree in their backyard. The owner finally got him back inside the house and waited for the bear to leave. After the bear had gone the Owner tried to get the dog to go outside but he wouldn’t. He finally realized what he had done and got scared. Too funny. They need time to develop just like anything else.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOver all, we are very happy with this breed. Turk stays outside whenever we leave. He guards the house and animals. We haven’t lost one chick this year to predators. He never goes very far. He is always where we left him when we come home. Once he knows someone they are his friend forever. He has already run several coyotes off and the occasional bird predator as well. He doesn’t mess around.  We feel way better leaving the house now than we used to. We know someone is coming to our house or in our area long before they get here. It doesn’t matter whether he is inside or outside. He always knows. Turk is always on the job and keeping his herd safe.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Tuesday, 07 February 2012 16:00

Forest Fire

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe heard they had a fire here about 15 years ago, a pretty bad one. I know the people we bought this land from were very concerned. They cut all of the low limbs off the trees both large and small and cleaned them up and either burned them in their woodstove or got rid of them some other way. This place looked like a park when we bought it. They had done the whole lower 20 acres and started on the upper 20. They mowed what they could and even had a fire fighting system of sorts they were working on. We heard at one time they had an old tanker truck up here.

Last August we found out firsthand what all the concern was about. It was about 3:30 p.m. and I was headed down the hill to the post office to pick up a package. It is only a few miles away. Driving down our access road I noticed a cloud of smoke just a mile away or so. It looked like it was down near the highway.

When I arrived at the post office a few minutes later someone came flying out the door with two fire extinguishers in her hand. She shouted at someone behind her that “it just jumped the highway”

Well, how smart was I? I was starting to get it. I needed to get back home – fast.

By the time I hit our access road the helicopter was circling overhead dumping water on the fire. I made it home and told Laurie to gather our important papers and put them in the truck and then go gather the horses and put them in the corral. I took the truck down to the barn and hooked up the horse trailer “just in case” and then went and hooked all the hoses up to the faucets and hydrants.  Our neighbor Tim came over to discuss what was going on. We figured we had some time before we would be really threatened if it continued to come up the hill and then turn and come towards us.

I jumped in the utility vehicle and drove across our property to get past the trees so I could see what was going on. I couldn’t believe it. The wind had picked up and the fire made it even worse and the fire did go up the hill and turn 90 degrees and come right at us. I drove back to the house and told Laurie she needed to get the horses out “ NOW”! I’m sure she understood the reason for the “enhanced inflection” in my tone. The fire was coming and it was coming fast.

(Spousal Editor Laurie would like me to insert a note here): “Readers – if you own a horse, please make sure they will load into a trailer without a fuss. It can mean the difference between saving your animals or not.”

Once Laurie and the animals were safely on their way, I went into the house and put on my Nomex (fire resistant) coveralls that I had saved from when I used to have construction work in the refineries. I went down to the barn and made sure it was all closed up and brought the tractor up to the house and settled down to wait.

About 10 minutes later two people from the forest service (federal) and/or DNR (state) showed up at the house to look everything over and see what they needed to defend the house. Their truck was soon followed by two more, each with a 3 man crew. The local volunteer firefighters from 20 miles away were also involved. I can’t say enough about these people, all three services, and their combined response to save my property and the two other properties with dwellings that lay in the path of this fire. Before it was over there were over 140 firefighters involved.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIt turns out; they didn’t have to do anything to protect our house and barn. My house is built out of concrete and metal. All non combustibles. Add to that the land is cleared to at least 100’ around the house and barn. All trees that might have been a problem have been removed. (They did get burned but only in our masonry heater). I felt good about the compliments that came our way from the professionals. We had made a conscious effort to be self sufficient in the case of fire and apparently we got it right. All the soffits and the entire underside of our lean-tos, carport, woodshed and covered porch roofs are covered in metal. There is no exposed wood anywhere to burn. We don’t have bird hole vents in our attic but rather chose to use perforated metal in the soffits and ridge vent at the peak for ventilation. One of the biggest causes of fire getting into the attic from outside is the wind created by the fire blowing embers into the bird hole venting and into the attic.

I used the tractor to cut fire lines around the house because there was natural high grass that could burn. Note to self: cut the grass next year. Before I could finish, a firefighting bulldozer arrived and cut a really nice dirt filled swath around the house, barn, and even the garden. He had come from the origin of the fire two miles away, in the black of night, up a steep hill, and just kept going along the edge of the fire trying to help contain it. I know a lot about equipment operators and this guy was good!

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWhat eventually stopped the fire besides the efforts of the firefighters, were the efforts of my neighbors who kept the grass mowed around their houses and along our access road. You can see the effect in the picture to the left. Before it was over this fire consumed over 400 acres.

It was stopped and contained within 24 hours but the firefighters were vigilant 24/7 for over a week and continued to come back and check for a few more weeks after that. I have red spots on my solar panels and green metal roof from the retardant they dumped from the airplanes but I don’t care, they’re not burnt. We lost some trees but will use them for firewood. One neighbor lost a lot of trees but his dwellings were all kept safe. New trees will grow and the horses will enjoy the fresh green grass this spring.

Our biggest casualty was Laurie’s personal Ponderosa Pine tree snag. Sadly, the Kestrels and other birds and animals will all have to find a new home next year. In the meantime we’ll be growing more trees as fast as we can and keeping a sharp eye on the horizon.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Friday, 06 April 2012 17:00

Backup Systems

Living off grid presents one set of challenges but we also live pretty far away from any services which presents another set of challenges. This article is about how we addressed both of those. In doing so we are well aware that ideas and opinions are endless and some of you will wonder what in the world we are thinking but that’s okay, someone else just might benefit from our experiences and that’s why I write these blogs.

We aren’t remote like some people but we are “out there” a ways. Our property is three miles from pavement and 20 miles from the nearest small town. We like it that way but it does present some problems. You can’t just pick up the phone and get a service tech at your house. They may not even be able to get up our driveway in the winter if it turns to solid ice. You also aren’t going to see law enforcement or an ambulance anytime soon after a call. Well, that’s the way it is but we do have some options available to us.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEmergency Services: We have an Anatolian Shepherd guard dog and he is an excellent warning system for any kind of intruder on two feet or four.

We also joined a medical helicopter service that will come to our house and get us in case of extreme emergency. The service costs $150.00 for the two for us for three years. For anything else, we can be at a local hospital or clinic within 45 minutes or so.

We built our house out of non combustible materials on the exterior. We have already been through a wild fire (FIRE BLOG) and came out completely untouched due to design of property and home. We don’t have a sprinkler system inside but we do have hoses and fire extinguishers. One of our hose bibs is inside the house.

Water: When we moved here there was an existing well and 1500 gallon holding tank. We wanted gravity flow pressure for our water system so we put a 1900 gallon tank further up the hill and use that, keeping the older tank as backup. It is kept full. We actually did have an electrical part fail on our new system and had to schedule a service tech to come replace a part. We had over 2000 gallons in reserve when the part broke so we had plenty of time to schedule the repair. We only use about 50 gallons per day so we had a 40 day supply without even trying to conserve.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe water tank has a float system built into it. When the float drops to a certain level it turns the pump on automatically and my solar power system runs the 220V pump from either the panels or battery backup supply or both. I can turn the switch off at the panel and wait for a sunny day to pump.

I have another switch between the house and well that turns off everything automatic.  I have a 220 power chord tied in to that switch that I can plug into my portable generator to pump water. I can also bypass the batteries and pump water with my big generator. Bottom line, I have three ways to pump water, all independent of each other so if anything goes wrong with the solar or either generator I still have two other ways to pump.

We also have three water cisterns that capture water off the roof of the house and barn. (CISTERN BLOG)

Heat: Our main source of heat is our masonry heater. We use that almost exclusively from October to April. Spring and fall we can use our wood fired masonry kitchen stove (HEATER BLOG) to heat the house. As a backup to those two, we also have propane (direct vent) wall heaters with thermostats to keep the house as warm as we want. Those come in handy if we want to leave the house in the winter for any length of time.

Sewer: Well, we did leave the outhouse intact – just in case…………..

Electricity: We have our solar panels (SOLAR BLOG), inverter and battery backup system for our main power supply.  Over 18 months in service and we haven’t had an electrical outage yet. If we ever do, we have a propane fired 12kw generator that will run our whole household if we need it to. If those two items fail, I have a smaller 3500 watt portable generator that we can use to keep the essentials like freezer, phone system, and an appliance or two as needed.

Phones: Many of you have read about our remote cell phone system. (PHONE BLOG)I have a full set of replacement parts on hand and worse case we have our old emergency antenna and amplifier that plugs into a 12v outlet on the car and plugs into our phone for one to two bars of reception.

Cost: We were already going to have the masonry heater, kitchen stove, generator, and a new water tank up the hill. Total cost for the helicopter service, dog, propane heaters, switches and cords – less than $2,000. What value do you put on piece of mind? I think it’s a bargain.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWinter Transportation: All wheel drive and a tractor with a snow plow should get us out of here. Failing that, we always have the two horses.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 03 December 2012 16:00

Home Based Occupation

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn 2010 we had to close our commercial masonry construction business due to a complete lack of work. What were we going to do? One could only guess as to how long the economy was going to be either slow or even nonexistent. We decided we needed to make a change and set about to research new options.

We made a lot of other changes as well. While we were in the process of closing the business down we were also building a new home on the other side of the state. We were going to live off grid in the mountains of Eastern Washington.

We had been looking at websites for sale online as a viable option for people living in a fairly remote setting and still needing income. Apparently someone forgot to tell the brokers there was a bad economy because the purchase prices were typical of a much better economy. We decided to build a new website instead of buying an existing one. After much research and consulting we launched Good Ideas For Life.

In all of our research we were able to look at quite a few sets of accounting books of online companies. It appeared that with good programming and a little creative code writing you could get ahead quickly, become “visible” to the search engines so that people could find you to buy your products. Unfortunately about the same time we launched, Google came out with a whole new set of rules and since they dominate the Search Market at this time you have to play by their rules. To this day no one knows what (if any) big secret lies in Googles new algorithm that might allow you to get ahead quickly.

I didn’t’ see the economy getting as bad as it did and I didn’t see this change from Google coming either. I can’t believe they didn’t consult with us before they turned the whole SEO (Search Engine Optimization) upside down with their new formula.

Bottom line was that it was going to take a lot longer time to become successful with an online store. It was going to take a lot of hard work and even more patience. What were we going to do in the meantime?

It’s been a struggle. We live too far (100 miles round trip) to travel to a full or part time job that pays less than $12.00 per hour. Jobs here average $9.00 to $12.00 per hour. When we chose our property to build on, gas was $1.50 per gallon, not $4.00 or $4.50 for diesel.

The gist of all of this was that we got caught without an income in spite of our research, hard work, and good intentions. Because of that we have been doing whatever we can to survive.

Our website is getting better but still has a long way to go. This past year we have done the following types of odd jobs to stay afloat:

Laurie has done custom sewing for paying customers.

I have done tractor work for neighbors.

We both worked for a moving company that needed extra help.

I’ve done contract work for a local Contractor that isn’t familiar with government paperwork and need some help bidding.

I’ve also done permit work for people who want to build here but live far away. I represent them in acquiring address’s, permits for sewer, water, and power and meeting all of the proper entities to get quotes for everything needed prior to actually building.

I helped construct a root cellar.

I helped install a new pump in a new well and set up the water system.

Sold products at the Mother Earth New Fair.

Sold products from our website.

We also make some money from our blog site Off Grid Works from Google Ads.

We even traded cleanup labor for free apples, pears, and pie cherries.

Whatever it takes is what you have to do. We’re hopeful that Good Ideas For Life will continue to grow but in the meantime if you need something done in the middle of nowhere, give us a call, we are available.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works .

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  • Our Home Design Features Part 1

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. Since I seem to struggle with my memory more and more I thought it would be nice to list them out along with a little explanation of them. Most of them are explained in detail on prior Blogs. Roof overhangs – our eave length is calculated to keep the sun out of the windows in the summer which helps with natural cooling, and let the sun in during Read More
  • Our Home Design Features Part 2

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. This is the second installment of features. Part 1 was published last week. See Part 1 Insulated cold frames – on the south side of the house we put in raised bed insulated cold frames. We have grown fresh cold weather type vegetables as cold as 18F with nothing to heat them but the sun. They are attached to the side of the house which never freezes. Plug Read More
  • I Built My House for Extreme Weather

    I went to work in the family commercial construction company in the early 1980's and by the end of the decade had worked my way into the office as a project manager. Commercial construction is entirely different than residential construction. For one thing, everything is engineered - structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a part in the design of commercial buildings. It wasn't long before I discovered the term "100 year storm". Many structural designs and mechanical designs were based on the 100 year storm (I'm over simplifying for the purpose of this article). Things like concrete foundation design and Read More
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